In preparation for study abroad, Scripps College’s Study Abroad and Global Education (SAGE) office requires that each student complete an orientation program in which they have to outline how they anticipate dealing with “culture shock.”
When I was completing this process last spring, I didn’t exactly know what to write. There were few distinct cultural differences between the United States and Scotland that I could easily identify or thought would be able to “shock” me.
I remember suggesting that the drinking culture in Scotland was much more significant than it was in the United States, and that I could see myself having difficulty understanding the Scottish accent.
Besides a large number of general primers shown to SAGE participants in a PowerPoint presentation detailing how to budget and obtain a cell phone, this was the only orientation made available to Scripps students. When I left for Scotland, I had no notion of the problems I would face or how helpless I would end up feeling.
In preparing students for study abroad, SAGE needs to shift the emphasis in their orientation from “culture shock” to demonstrating how study abroad holds the potential to be a radical departure from anything that students have ever experienced before in a multitude of senses.
The difficulties I faced while abroad were not due to the ways in which I found Scottish culture to be different from the US; rather, they stemmed from being in a program at a large university that I was unhappy with, having never lived in a city before, or with people I disliked being with, and the unexpected homesickness I experienced for my friends and family in the United States.
All of this was compounded by the fact that I experienced a traumatic event when I was abroad, and I had few friends to help me cope with that event. There were fourteen people in my program, and because it began earlier than the general program at the University of Edinburgh, I was limited in my ability to make friends outside the program. I did not know how to leave the program or how to obtain academic accommodations within the university.
In understanding that study abroad consists of a student being transported to not only another country but also another institution with radically different modes of operation, Scripps must do more to prepare students for experiences that are not necessarily unique to the culture of their host country.
One of the issues I faced while abroad, and one that I had never dealt with at Scripps, was an arrogant, intimidating professor that was the head of my study abroad program. I was in a Parliamentary Internship program, and at one point, he threatened to remove one of my friends from her placement with the justification that she was “not taking the program seriously enough,” despite the fact that she had completed all assignments on time and routinely participated in class.
He was extremely unclear about the project guidelines on which the entirety of the course grade rested, and told different students different guidelines. Other students on the program were unphased by the professor, having dealt with similar situations at their home institutions.
However, I had no idea how to approach him, or make a complaint to the institution, although another student eventually did. When I seeked help for my mental health with IFSA-Butler, the company through which I was studying abroad and provided me with an even more extensive orientation. I was insistent about the fact that they did not contact the head of my program in fear that it would negatively impact my grade and his perception of me.
Nearly all my friends that studied abroad stated that they dealt with a profound sense of loneliness during their experience. For me, this was most apparent in the differing attitudes towards academia that individuals on my program maintained, and in the manner in which the stress culture that permeated their home institutions in the United States was easily transported to Europe.
A fellow intern on my program said to me, “I don’t understand why they make a big deal of the suicide problem at [University of Pennsylvania]. It’s UPenn, you know what you’re getting into.” Naturally, when I began dealing with mental health issues of my own in the wake of a traumatic experience, I was reluctant to reach out and get help in a way that I had never been at Scripps.
IFSA-Butler eventually placed me in therapy, and I spoke with them extensively about whether or not I would be able to leave my program early, completing my schoolwork but missing a few weeks of “contact time” at my internship in Parliament. They stated that I would be able to, citing “trauma” as an event, but whether or not I would be awarded credit for the internship would be dependent on a review board that would judge my case months after the program completed.
Not wanting to put my parents or myself through the stress of determining whether or not my internship would count for credit, I decided to stick it out. I lost ten pounds over the course of the semester, due to anxiety and stress.
Scripps cannot expect every SAGE participant to maintain the same values as Scripps does, and consequently cannot expect that those institutions provide the same services in relation to those values. For example, though Scripps provides a gym membership because it values the mental and physical health of its students, I had to pay to go the gym abroad.
Nevertheless, Scripps can be mindful of the ways in which the visiting institution may actively hinder students from having access to the services that they have come to expect at Scripps.
This is especially important with regards to mental health care. I do not know what I would have done had I been attending the University of Edinburgh without IFSA-Butler to assist me there. As IFSA-Butler was under the jurisdiction of the Edinburgh, I would have liked to have known how to navigate a larger institution, and how to better deal with a stress culture that I had not seen the likes of at Scripps.
Amanda Larson SC ‘19 is an English major with a Politics minor hailing from New Jersey. She loves dark chocolate, the west coast, and love poems by Frank O’Hara.