An American study abroad island program in London took a survey of their students asking how many British people they knew? To their surprise many students answered “no one.” Yet the students were all working or volunteering locally. How could they be surrounded by British people but feel they did not know anyone?
Island programs — so-called because the students live in a facility with on site classes organized by their home university — present challenges for both the students and program directors. The students know they are living in a bubble and quickly discover that exploring their physical surroundings and visiting local museums feels very superficial. Many program directors have introduced volunteering and internships to provide students a way into the culture. From the survey however it would appear that these experiences, while valuable, may not be providing the personal contact students crave in order to really learn about a society. I suppose seen from their perspective working with people is perhaps not always conducive to cultural discussions perhaps for reasons of reluctance on their end. It is easy to say they should be bolder but even graduate students enrolled in British universities express reluctance about asking “stupid questions.” How much more intimidating for an undergraduate in an island facility. If we are to advance in the mission of finding ways for American students to connect to others we need to find a connection that is meaningful to them.
In this context all applause to Pepperdine University International Programs, which has tackled this challenge with a series of “Listening Summits” in several of their study abroad programs. I was asked to facilitate Pepperdine’s London program summit. The basic project outline however is Pepperdine’s and in my opinion they have provided a wonderful model that deals with the reality of cultural isolation abroad and in particular in island programs. The concept is simple. Find a partner university and organize a weekend retreat consisting of discussion and fun activities. The beauty of this plan is that it deals with the unspoken desire of students to connect with people their age who happen to be curious about cultural exploration. Pepperdine’s UK partner was Christ Church Canterbury, a university with a large and growing American Studies program. Most of the Canterbury students were preparing to spend a year in the United States as part of their program so they were as excited to meet the Americans as the Pepperdine students were to meet them.
Students were required to apply to the Listening Summit and although women students were in the majority (reflecting their numbers in both programs) there were enough men to provide real gender diversity. The equal student and gender numbers ensured that each Pepperdine student shared a room with a Christ Church student. In their applications several students cited the excitement of having a British or American roommate for the weekend as one of the summit’s attractions.
For two and a half days the students discussed broad-based themes backed up by news articles to compare and contrast issues such as immigration, welfare and teen pregnancies, education, youth participation in democracy and the role of religion in the United States and the United Kingdom.
The discussion groups were entirely student led and they enjoyed them so much that many of them carried on their conversations long after the sessions had ended. To provide some variety the Pepperdine staff engaged a company that specializes in fun outdoors team building exercises. That the mostly California born Pepperdine students had fun in the rainy outdoors is a testament to how well the activities were run and the students singled them out in their evaluations. Another highly successful activity was an evening of Scottish dancing featuring a professional ceilidh band.
For me the highlight of the summit was the Sunday presentations by the student discussion groups. The name “Listening Summit” was chosen to focus on the single most important trait of a student ambassador – the ability to listen to another point of view. To evaluate the success of their listening skills the student groups were asked to prepare presentations on a topic of their choice in which the Americans presented what they had learned about the British perspective(s) on a given topic. The British students in the group presented the American point(s) of view. The results were impressive. Here are some of the notes I took on their presentations.
The British students noted that superinjunctions in the UK is an exception to an otherwise similar stance in both countries on freedom of the press.
The Americans wondered if the more low-key British patriotism is due in part to strong regional patriotism in Britain.
The British students observed that US culture introduces Government in the second grade and broadcasts the State of the Union on every channel. They believe the image projected by the State of the Union helps to make the image of politicians more respectable than in the UK, even though the image of politicians is an issue in both countries.
The Americans discovered that college tuition in the UK is capped and that tuition and maintenance are separate grants paid by the government and based on the parents income. By contrast, affording college is much more of a problem in the US.
In a discussion of education and disadvantage the students discovered that teen pregnancies in both countries are high and that the basic policies of the countries differ greatly. In Britain providing housing for teen mothers was a priority whereas in the US the government does not seek to provide housing but concentrates on supporting teen mothers to complete their education.
Another topic that emerged from the general theme of education and disadvantage was the attitude to sports in colleges. The British students learned about title 9 and the importance of sports and (therefore of sports scholarships) to the income of large universities in particular. The Americans learned that rather than be paid to participate in sports or join them for free as in American colleges, British students normally pay to join college sports clubs and that it is rare for UK universities to support sports facilities.
What is clear from the formal sessions as well as the discussions in the corridors is that the Listening Summit is a very successful vehicle for providing a cultural immersion experience enabling students to discuss not only the weighty issues but also some of the detail that is necessary to cultural understanding. Crucially, in a UK-US relationship the students found out that they could not take language for granted. One evening a group of Pepperdine students learned that the “fancy dress” party the Canterbury students were describing is what they call a “costume” party. Later I heard the students asking each other the names of mundane objects in each other’s “language.” This was a major step. It takes some Americans and Brits years to realize there are more vocabulary differences that the usual lift/elevator and truck/lorry.
The most important indication of the success of the Listening Summit and indeed part of the intention was to inspire continuing relationships between the students. 100% of the student evaluations said that they wanted to keep in touch. Carolyn Vos Strache, Director of the undergraduate London Pepperdine Program and Assistant Director, Jennifer Ryan are organizing the annual Thanksgiving Dinner for all the Pepperdine students but this time students from Christ Church Canterbury will be there as well. But Dr Vos Strache notes that the students have already seen each other several times on their own initiative. This development was obviously one in which she took great pride — as well she should. As every American study abroad director in London knows, US students use London as a base of operations for visits to other countries and many of them simply do not get around to seeing other UK cities at all, especially if they have only a semester. That the Listening Summit found a way to create real friendships among the American and British students, which in turn inspired them to visit a city in Britain they might have skipped in order to go to Italy or Spain is another reason to pay attention to this innovative project.
For those study abroad programs searching for new ways to enthuse their students about the host culture and especially for those managing island programs, this is a model worth emulating.For an assessment from a student participant click here)