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Cultural Immersion

Cultural ImmersionBlack Issues associate editor experiences first-hand the benefits of studying abroad during a weeklong trip to Strasbourg, FranceKnowing what I know now, there is no way I would have finished my undergraduate degree without studying abroad for some period of time during those four years — a semester, a year, or even two weeks during the summer. Now, a decade or so later, I know the importance of immersing oneself in other cultures, learning another language, studying in another country. I know now how these types of international experiences not only inform one’s view of the world, but one’s identity as well.
Still, I have to admit that much of what I know, I have learned from writing about international education for Black Issues over the past year, talking and visiting with study abroad directors and international student services officers at colleges and universities and other organizations across the nation. Yet, as many times as I have listened to people tout the advantages of studying abroad, it wasn’t until I engaged in my own excursion that I gained the confidence to speak in first person and to count myself among those advocates who truly appreciate the importance of an international outlook.
The study abroad advocates I know are die-hard. They are eager to share what they know with the uninitiated and anxious to recruit new converts to their cause. But even in their fervor, they remain patient, understanding and willing to answer the “dumb questions.” Fortunately for me and several other first-timers, there were several such individuals among the participants in Brethren Colleges Abroad’s (BCA) international seminar for faculty and administrators held in Strasbourg, France, this summer. For those of us who were on our first trip abroad, we appreciated their expertise — appreciated their language proficiency when we needed to ask for directions, or buy the right size; appreciated their knowledge of French etiquette when we sat down to our first plate of cheese.
BCA’s seminars are designed to introduce faculty and administrators with little or no international experience to the organization’s study centers around the world and encourage them to take that experience back to their campuses.
“We hope they will come back to campus enthusiastic about the value of an international education and in turn will work on the campus to undertake a number of international activities … such as attracting international scholars or developing course content that has an international perspective,” BCA’s president Karen Jenkins told Black Issues in an interview last year.
BCA, a consortium of seven higher education institutions, is one of several organizations, including the Council on International Educational Exchange and the Council for International Exchange of Scholars that offer one- to two-week international seminars for faculty and administrators as well as semester or year-long programs for students (see Black Issues, Aug. 2, 2001).
city of roads
For eight days this summer, I accompanied a group of 19 American professors and administrators as they were introduced to Strasbourg. The group members, a mixture of those with little to no international travel experience to those who had traveled extensively, were almost all new to the city, whose name means “city of roads.” Unlike the more popular French cities such as Paris and Bordeaux, Strasbourg, located in France’s northeastern region of Alsace, does not garner the same wide-eyed, awesome recognition upon name — at least, that is, among most Americans. Outside the United States, things are different.
In the weeks before my departure, when I mentioned my upcoming trip to Strasbourg, most asked “Why not Paris?” But just as I began to feel as if there was no other worthwhile French destination, a German friend of mine suggested otherwise.
“You are going to Strasbourg?” she asked. “I’ve been there many times. My boyfriend used to live there; it’s right across the French border. I would visit him often. It’s a wonderful tourist spot.”
“A tourist spot?” I questioned.
“Those outside of France go to Paris for holiday,” she said. “The French. They go to Strasbourg.”
Perhaps the French do know better. Known as the heart of Europe and European democracy, Strasbourg has much to intrigue both the academic and the tourist. It is the site of several international organizations including the seat of the European Parliament, which is the legislative arm of the European Union; the Council of Europe, a human rights body representing 43 countries; and the European Court of Human Rights, an institution of the Council of Europe. As well, it is home to the University of Strasbourg, composed of three separate prestigious universities: Marc Bloch University, which offers programs in the humanities and is the only university in France to house both Protestant and Catholic theology departments; Robert Schuman University, which specializes in political science, law, business and journalism; and Louis Pasteur University, which specializes in medical and physical sciences. More than 42,000 students attend the universities. Fifteen percent of the student population is from outside of France, many from former French colonies in Africa.
Yet, even with its inherent cosmopolitanism, Strasbourg and its surrounding region maintain a very distinct and unique Alsatian identity, says Dr. Joseph Pouvatchy, professor of French civilization at Marc Bloch University. That identity, characterized by a mixture of French and Germanic heritages, is clearly attributed to the region’s position on the German border, but more so to its unique history, having changed hands five times between France and Germany since the 17th century.
It is also an identity that the Alsatians will not give up, Pouvatchy says. Even if it means Alsatians often find themselves pulled in two directions and set apart from the rest of France in ways that extend beyond their German-inspired dialect and cuisine. The experience of being a recurrent pawn of war has made the region conservative in nature, as well as a place where rightists, extremists and xenophophic politicians find success, Pouvatchy says. In the first-round of the recent French presidential elections, 25 percent to 40 percent of those in Alsace voted for the far-right presidential candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen, known for his anti-immigration stance. Le Pen’s success in Alsace is no doubt confusing, considering the region’s large population of foreigners and immigrants. As Pouvatchy explains, however, native Alsatians afraid of losing their identity were not the only ones to vote for Le Pen, many of the votes came from jobless immigrants, thinking that with Le Pen there will be less competition from other immigrants moving into the region after them.a unique time
All in all, it is an inimitable time for American students studying in Europe — a continent that is in many ways facing its own identity crisis. As individual countries work to strengthen the European Union and create a sort of “united states of Europe,” they also work to maintain their own cultural specificity, a feat that will no doubt be more difficult for the smaller countries. Presently, there are 15 member-states in the European Union, with 13 more eastern and southern countries being prepared for accession. The new common currency, the euro, although convenient and instrumental in strengthening the economy of many member-states, required participating countries to abandon their individual and distinctive currencies. Language is another cultural marker that countries are working to maintain. Currently, the European Parliament works in the 11 official languages of the European Union — creating a steady conundrum for the many translators and interpreters that work there.
Dr. Harlan Koff, a professor at Syracuse University’s study abroad center in Strasbourg, admits that in such an environment, discussions among U.S. students on issues such as race and diversity, the role of affirmative action and discrimination in the United States, often take on an added dimension and turn into conversations that would most likely not occur on a U.S. campus. Koff teaches courses on diversity and immigration issues at the center as well as a seminar on the European Identity, during which he challenges students to think and rethink those very issues and to reevaluate their own perceptions of race.
Koff is among a number of professors who teach classes at the center. Many of the professors are faculty members and dignitaries from the University of Strasbourg and the Council of Europe. Therefore, students are in direct contact with people who are solving international issues, says Dr. Raymond Bach, the center’s director. That exposure to the real-world provided in the classroom as well as the opportunity to intern at the Council of Europe and the Court of Human Rights serve as the biggest draws for students, Bach says. Naturally, the program appeals to students who are majoring in international relations or related fields, but classes at the center on French cinema, literature and art appeal to other students as well, Bach says. And for those students who demonstrate French language proficiency, the opportunity is there to enroll in classes at the University of Strasbourg directly.pushed to new limits
Being exposed to those real-life practitioners was one of the most beneficial aspects of the program for Dr. Lisa Cook, a research fellow at Harvard’s Center for International Development and an adjunct lecturer at the Kennedy School of Government. “It was fascinating to see these people on the job and see them excited about what they were doing,” Cook says. “It was an incredible way to get to know a country and culture outside of the United States from a non-Western perspective — and certainly a non-American perspective.”
Cook participated in a yearlong study abroad program at Syracuse’s Strasbourg center in the late 1980s as a student at Spelman College in Atlanta. Spelman, a historically Black institution, has been sending students to Syracuse’s Strasbourg center for more than 20 years through a partnership between the two schools. Spelman typically sends one or two students to Strasbourg a year, says Dr. Margery Ganz, director of study abroad at Spelman. Ganz speaks highly of Strasbourg and the Syracuse center. Students who study there, she says, often come back more independent, having truly immersed themselves in the city’s culture. “It is good for the students to be in a city that is manageable and where they are going to be forced into using their French or German, as opposed to Paris,” where many people speak English, Ganz says.
Cook, who went on to study at Oxford, the University of Dakar and Berkeley, admits that she returned from her study abroad experience in Strasbourg a new person. Her sister, she explains, says she came back “preaching.” Upon her return, Cook got involved in solidarity causes and protests against South African apartheid. She even took her newfound social activism to the level of campus politics, leading a protest against a policy that required Spelman students to pay for sporting events at its “brother school” Morehouse College. Most importantly, however, she began to question things at a more fundamental level. While in Strasbourg, she read two or three newspapers a day, she says, and was struck by how each had a radically different interpretation of the same event. “I got a sense of what it meant to be an American and a sense of the importance of being critical and not taking things at face value,” Cook says.
Cook also says she began to take her studies more seriously after her return, having been pushed to new limits by the French university system. She had been told by her Spelman professors repeatedly that she was underperforming, but it was not until her year in Strasbourg that she earned her first 4.0 semester. She reached that milestone not because the classes were easier, she remembers, but because they were “extremely difficult.” Cook recalls getting a 10 on her first essay in a film course she was taking at the University of Strasbourg. The French grading scale is from 1 to 20 and whereas she had been used to being graded on a curve, that was not the case in France. “Our professors were unforgiving; 19 and 20 were reserved for God,” she says. By the time Cook completed the class, however, she was getting a 17, the highest grade in the course.
The French university system will no doubt push many students to new limits. The system is structured to weed out students during their first and second years. It is common that after the first three months or so when students sit for their first exam, 50 percent to 60 percent are eliminated. This is contrary to the American higher education system where college placement exams and grade-point averages often narrow the pool prior to enrollment.
The French philosophy toward higher education is to provide “open and free access,” explains Dr. Marc Arnold, a professor of English, at the Institute of Political Studies at Robert Schuman University. In France, any student who earns a baccalaureate (the equivalent to the U.S. high school diploma) has the right by law to study at the university nearest their home. But if the French university system stretches a student’s intellectual capacity, it won’t stretch their purse. The cost of registration fees and tuition for a year —  about 120 euros or $110 U.S. per year.
Again, perhaps the French know better.
And now, even though I didn’t take advantage of the opportunities to study overseas during my undergraduate career, I know better as well. As most study abroad advocates will argue, it is never too late to expand one’s perspective to global heights.

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