Facilities Abroad – Designed for Splendid Isolation?



18643969_sYears ago in a quiet Washington DC suburb, word got out that the recently sold house on their tight-knit street had not been bought by a family but rather by a home for young men with mental issues.  The street practically seized up with apprehension. Would the street become noisy? Unsafe?  The carers moved in with their patients and within two weeks they popped an invitation to a barbecue through every door on the street. The invitation mentioned a tour of the facility and meeting the residents.  The entire street showed up and as the small garden filled with the street neighbors smiling and greeting the learning disabled young men, the carers exchanged relieved and happy glances. Their stunning public relations pitch had not only eased the fears of the residents but they had acquired caring neighbors who would look out for them and for their patients. As a street neighbor I also attended the barbecue and the memory of it returns when I think of the  locations of many US university facilities abroad. The carers chose their location because they wanted neighbors. I wonder if study abroad offices have ever even entertained the notion of neighbors in addition to premises for their students abroad?

I suspect not, because the priorities probably look different stateside.  Rather than looking out for friendly locals for their students, universities appear to favor prestigious and beautiful locations which they feel will entice students and mark their  prestige.   There is no question that the choice of locations based on these criteria accomplishes both goals.  Students no doubt love these 5 star hotel like accommodations and the ability to step out of their door to the center of town. As for prestige, the mere mention that a US university has a facility in an enviable address does raise its profile abroad, especially if it is a college that few outside of the US have heard of. However, given the amount of time many directors spend trying  to get their students involved with local people (as opposed to local culture) I wonder if forced to  retrench or lose their study abroad programs some directors would ultimately be happier  looking  further afield in authentic residential areas. It would certainly force a change of tone in the marketing. Here are some of the current pitches on college websites:

Students who spend a semester at XXXX London live and learn in the heart of Bloomsbury, a neighborhood that is home to the British Museum, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and the West End (London’s famous theatre district). 

XXXX     occupies an imposing building of some 27,000 square feet at the north-west corner of Trafalgar Square.

Wouldn’t it be interesting in an alternate universe to read the following instead:

Students who spend a semester at XXXX London will live in the East End, a historic part of London in the midst of a thriving community.

XXXX  has a central academic facility but students live in apartments scattered throughout a close-knit neighborhood nearby.

In the alternative universe students would exchange their splendid isolation for seeing actual people on their way to and from work and even meet them on the weekends in the local public spaces.  They would also be forced to meet each other somewhere in the neighborhood instead of repairing to their “dorm” every evening.  People who do not live in places like London do not understand how alien the center is to residential areas. Recently, some American friends came to visit our neighborhood.  They were charmed to see the local cricket club out on the green.  Despite having been in England nearly a year they had never seen people playing cricket.  Very understandable as they are living in the center with high-priced restaurants and national museums. They are working in London so they are at least meeting British people at work,  however that day they discovered the extent to which their existence among mostly wealthy foreigners in the center differs from the normal communities which all have their  “greens,”  “commons” and  local teams.

The desire of students to have their eyes opened to real life should not be underestimated or overlooked just because they may be unaware of it.  I took some students who live and study in an exclusive part of London near museums and concert halls  to the Guildhall as part of a lesson emphasizing the historic importance of business.  They love their museum area accommodation but as we walked along the busy streets of the business district they were visibly excited and told me how much they enjoyed seeing this part of the London. “We never would have come here if you had not brought us!” they told me excitedly. After class was dismissed they stayed to have lunch in the area. What interested them was the fact that they were seeing working people whereas in the  area where they lived and studied,  tourists are the majority on the streets. Taking it one step further, being among normal citizens made them feel part of the society whereas among tourists, they probably feel at times only a few steps removed – long stay tourists. A US program near Greenwich discovered the satisfaction of their students among people in the community through happenstance.  The dorms they normally used near the University of Greenwich were being renovated forcing them to find accommodation for their students slightly further away, in a local community.  The students I spoke to loved it despite the slight inconvenience of distance.  It felt real to them and they enjoyed discovering an area with a cozy, local feel.

I certainly do not expect anyone to abandon facilities in central cities or villas  which were purchased or built years ago.  But if anyone out there is thinking of a new facility or rethinking what you have,  I would urge you to carefully consider the actual goals of the programs and how student accommodation may help or hinder those goals.  You can buy or rent a high-priced living facility in a tourist district and then later try to shoehorn the students into community service projects so they can meet locals. Or you could look at unfashionable, less expensive,  less central accommodation in real neighborhoods so they can become local. Or as an Arabic proverb puts it  succinctly: “Look for the neighbor, before the house.”