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Category: Study Abroad

Getting Out of the City

Getting Out of the City

By Katie Ford

Today I was in Helsinki, Finland, but I only saw the city through the windows of a car. This is super unusual for me because I almost always recommend seeing the city itself before you head outside of it to do other activities. I think that this happens to be the exception, with no disrespect to Helsinki, which I’m sure is a lovely city. When traveling, it’s very important to understand the place that you’re visiting, and figuring out what’s important to that place. In Helsinki, and all over Finland, it’s nature. Outdoor sports rule the land, so what better way to see the country than from a kayak in the fjords? Make sure to check out favorite local activities while you’re traveling so that you have the opportunity to truly experience the places that you travel to!

My adventure in Helsinki:

I opted to do a guided kayaking tour of the Finnish Fjords because I knew of the beautiful nature that Finland has to offer, and thought that it would be a once in a lifetime experience. I’m so glad that I was right. We started the day by being driven from the port of Helsinki to where the kayaks were located, and we were then “suited up”. Our suits included a life vest and splash skirt (a tarp-like skirt which wraps around the seat hole of the kayak to prevent water from getting inside, very handy!). Our guide mentioned that he also had waterproof jackets available for us, but we didn’t need them because the weather was so beautiful! I brought a camera with me, and was determined to take photos even though it was recommended that I leave it behind, so I stuffed that into a ziplock bag to prevent water damage and stuck in my life jacket’s pocket. It worked out great, and I got some really beautiful photos! After we suited up, we were again driven to the place where we would actually launch (it was more sheltered than our first stop, and therefore less windy).

We got into our kayaks with our guide’s help, and we pushed off. We spent a good few hours out on the water kayaking between beautiful islands, and saw some gorgeous birds that I hadn’t seen before, as well as some I had, like baby seagulls and an entire swan family. We stopped for lunch on a beautiful island (which conveniently also had a lean-to and toilet facilities) to have a picnic lunch. Our guide had brought sandwiches, and we hiked to the top of the mountain to eat them (I use the term mountain loosely, as the highest point in the Helsinki area is only about 20 m, and that’s where we were). After we finished lunch, our guide shared with us some juice from a Finnish “super fruit” Sea Buckthorn so that we would get to try it. It was extremely bitter, but with the same amount of vitamin C in one berry that’s in an entire orange, I’d say I could get on board with drinking it! After we finished lunch, we got back in our kayaks and headed back towards the direction of our launch point. It was a bit windy on our way back which meant some waves that didn’t seem so friendly, but our guide was fantastic with helping us navigate them, and we all arrived back safely. He collected our e-mail addresses to e-mail the photos that he’d taken, and then delivered us back to the port.

As is probably obvious from the story I just told, I absolutely loved our guide. He was so knowledgeable not only about kayaking, but also a bit about Finnish history, and he was really great about sharing some tidbits about Finnish culture. He and his father own the company that took us out on this tour, and their business offers all kinds of kayaking services. We had a chat on our way back to shore about visiting Helsinki, and I think that the guide really hit the nail on the head when he said that the best way to see Helsinki is to experience the nature surrounding it. Kayaking through the Finnish fjords was one of the most unique traveling experiences I’ve ever had, and I’m so glad that I decided to try it. If you’re in Helsinki, I would most definitely recommend going out on a kayaking tour, you certainly won’t regret it!

Company website: www.naturaviva.fi

Contact info: info@naturaviva.fi

+358(0) 10 292 4030

Coming Home and How to Make it Suck Less

Coming Home and How to Make it Suck Less

By Katie Ford

Leaving your study abroad experience may be one of the most difficult things that you have to do whilst studying abroad, and many people don’t realize just how difficult it’s actually going to be until it happens. If you’ve been abroad for a semester or year, the challenge becomes infinitely greater, as you’ve “set up shop” in your new home for a fairly significant amount of time, and then you’re subsequently forced out of it and thrown right back into your old life, which by the way, isn’t going to be the same as when you left it in many ways. When I studied abroad in Aix-en-Provence three years ago, it felt as though my heart was being ripped right out of my chest when my plane took off in Marseille, despite how happy I was to be going home to see my family. And unfortunately, it doesn’t get much easier if you do it more than once. Let me tell you a story about my three weeks spent back in Aix-en-Provence last summer (just over two years since I left the first time)…

It was Bastille Day 2013, and it was my last night in Aix-en-Provence. I had already accepted an offer at Cardiff University to complete my Master’s degree, so although I knew I’d be close in a couple of months, it really wasn’t close enough for my taste. I went to my friend Haley’s flat to meet up with her and our friend Michael for some drinks to start the night. I probably had a few too many at that point, but then things really only started going downhill. We proceeded to go and explore the festivities, drink some wine, and then, well, drink some more wine. Despite the fact that I hadn’t yet packed for my return flight (which was around 8 am), I thought that this was a fantastic idea. So after getting sufficiently intoxicated, I decided it was best to head home. But first, it was obvious that I needed to stop for my last and final crepe (so tragic). So I went to the crepe stand near la Rotonde which I knew and loved dearly, as I was a frequent customer, and ordered my usual. I explained to the man that it was my last night in Aix and that I was very sad to leave, and he gave me my crepe for free as a farewell gift, and wished me safe travels. I went to go sit at a bench nearby with my steaming hot crepe that was far too hot to immediately eat, and I started to cry. And because I was already a bit drunk, this was a pretty extravagant cry session, which only added to the hilarity of the situation, as I was sitting on a bench with a crepe in the middle of the night crying. Because it was Bastille Day, there were police vans set up in front of these particular benches, and one officer happened to be sitting in his van taking a break. When he saw me start to bawl for no apparent reason, he came over and gave me some of his water and started to ask me what was wrong. I explained to him how dearly I love this city, and how I didn’t want to leave. After he asked where I was from (and I said New York, which ALWAYS causes confusion), he said how jealous he was that I get to go back to New York City (close enough…), and how he thought that I needed to better appreciate my home. But anyway, after he calmed me down and my crepe cooled off enough for me to eat it, I got in a cab and headed back to my house to pack and sleep.

Now I realize this is a very long and potentially embarrassing story, but I think it brings up some really key points when it comes to studying abroad, and especially returning from a study abroad experience. Firstly, I think it’s important to note that I went out to celebrate that night. Remember to enjoy your study abroad experience, and appreciate where you are. Stop to think about the truly amazing place that you’re currently living, and savor it until the very last second you’re there! It’s so easy to get used to the place you’re living, and to forget how extraordinary it actually is! As Bill Bryson said, “To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.” Keep experiencing those things as if for the first time, you’ll appreciate those memories later.

The second key point is the one that that police officer brought up when he told me that he was jealous of me getting to go back to New York. When you’re from a place that’s so close to something as amazing as New York City, it’s hard to appreciate it like other people might. And this works for anyone, no matter where you’re from! Do you know how many foreign students would kill for the opportunity to study in the middle of no where Kansas, just to see America? Even if you’re leaving a place that you’ve fallen in love with, just remember the amazing place that you get to go back to, and go back to it with a new and refreshed heart and mind. Not only will this ease the re-entry process, but it will just generally allow you to see and experience new things in your home, even if you’ve lived there all your life.

The third point isn’t so much to do with the story, but with the “sequel”. Since I left Aix-en-Provence a little less than a year ago, I’ve moved to Europe, traveled to more than 15 different cities, and will travel to 6 more by the time the anniversary of this story comes up. Included in that count is two trips to Aix-en-Provence, one weekend and one 3-week research adventure. This only goes to show that you will find a way to come back if you really want to. I was happy to find that Aix-en-Provence was almost exactly the same as I’d left it three years ago after I finished my first study abroad experience, and I love it just as deeply. I see so many friends and peers who are figuring out ways to visit, work in, or study in the cities where they studied abroad, and it makes my heart so happy to see people following those dreams like I did. But most importantly, don’t worry that the city you’ve grown to love will get up and walk away, it won’t!

So for those of you who just returned from your study abroad experience, welcome back home, enjoy it and appreciate every single second of it. If any of you are having trouble adjusting, please feel free to reach out to me to talk and/or vent, or for advice. I think very few people have had a rougher time with re-entry and reverse culture shock than I did, so I have a unique insight into this matter, and would absolutely love to help you in any way that I can 🙂

What is Culture?

What is Culture?

By Katie Ford
This past weekend I attended a conference in Paris held by the Associate of American Universities in France, and walked away with a handful of fantastic field contacts, and a whole lot of questions that still needed pondering. The most troublesome, or most interesting, question that I continue to have is the question of culture, and how to best define it.
The question, “what is culture?” is one often posed by those working in the field of international education. In fact, the answers to this question and how we react to them is vital to the success of our mission. So it would make sense that there is a definition that is widely agreed upon in the field, right? Not exactly. Sure, there are some definitions or explanations that most do agree upon, but the idea of culture has changed so much since it was first introduced as a concept by anthropologists, that it is truly a challenge to precisely define it as a “thing” that can be explained, understood, or even immersed into. Dictionary.com defines culture a the following: “the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group: the youth culture;the drug culture.” For the purposes of study abroad, the ethnic group is most relevant.
I have lived in three cultures during my lifetime, based on the broad definition that culture is a set of values and other traits particular to a group of people, or the “ethnic group” as defined by dictionary.com. These three cultures include American, British/Welsh, and French. But that brings up an even broader question- what exactly is American or British or French culture? Saying that I’ve lived solely in these three cultures does a disservice to the places I’ve actually lived, by suggesting that all of France, Britain, and America have only one culture. So, if we can agree that there is no such this as an overarching American culture, but many small regional ones, then is my culture that of my hometown in New York? Or is it possible that I have adopted the culture of central Pennsylvania where I attended university for four years? When I was living in the south of France was I “immersed” into French culture or Provencal culture? And living in Cardiff, is what I’m experience the culture of Britain or of Wales, or even just of Cardiff, as most will agree that Cardiff is significantly different than towns in north Wales? It is these questions that haunt me as an international education professional, because if I am unable to define exactly what culture is, and exactly which culture exists in which places, how am I to advise students on the way to integrate into these cultures and compare them to their own? Cultural integration is another tricky topic; many people study abroad with the intention of “immersing” themselves into their host culture. But what exactly does it mean to immerse yourself into a culture? Do you just need to make some local friends and eat the same food, or does immersion go deeper than that? I would argue that in a semester, or even in a year, it’s impossible to adopt the entire value system of the host culture, so if that’s what immersion means then it probably isn’t even possible.
All of these questions are extremely relevant for both international education professionals, and for students who are about to embark on a study abroad experience. Most students will be asked the question “what is culture?” before they depart, and they will be asked to consider the stereotypes of their host country, and how to dig deeper to find the truths about the country despite the stereotypes that they are aware of. But the truth is, the answer to the culture question may be different for everyone, and what immersion into a culture actually means will also probably be different for everyone. When traveling or living abroad, learning something about your host culture, whether that means the local art, language, habits, values, etc., is vital to understanding the place that your visiting, and will benefit you greatly in many ways. Entering into these types of experiences with little or no expectations will also allow you to fully experience your new surroundings in a way that is untainted by your previous expectations. Although it may be significantly more challenging, the element of surprise when you arrive in your host culture will allow you to discover things about that host culture that you may never have noticed otherwise if you’d gone abroad with knowledge already built up. A certain amount of research about traditions and such will be helpful to you, of course, but those things must be used as a gateway to understanding the depths of your host culture while you are living there.
Fighting the Stereotypes

Fighting the Stereotypes

By Katie Ford

I’m traveling between the UK and France today, and as such, I have spent a lot of time sitting on buses and in the airport. On my journey between Cardiff and Gatwick Airport, I overheard a Welsh man speaking about an “ugly” experience he’d had with several Americans. The story was one I’ve heard many times before, and went something like this:

“They started asking me where I was from. First they suggested Australia, and I said, ‘No, I’m from Wales’, and they replied, ‘Oh, so England?’”

The story was a bit longer, but it generally demonstrated two things to me. First, this man was genuinely upset that the Americans he’d met didn’t even realize that his home country was its own country. Second, the “ugly American” stereotype is alive and well, folks!

The “ugly American” is one which truly exceeds definition; he or she is an individual who demonstrates total ignorance about the world around him or her, and is one who doesn’t seem to be interested in actually learning about it. Usually this person is rather loud and obnoxious, and expects people outside of the United States to cater to them and their cultural needs. For example, an ugly American in France will walk into a café and automatically start speaking English to the staff, and won’t bother determining whether anyone there actually speaks English. He or she might actually be upset if they don’t speak English… I mean, how dare they NOT speak MY language, right?

I am well aware that not all Americans are like this. In fact, I would argue that most are not like this. The problem, however, is that there are enough people like this for many in other countries to label Americans by these stereotypes. There are some super easy ways to combat these stereotypes; remember, when you’re abroad you’re not only representing yourself, your representing everything that you’re affiliated with (including that handy USA passport).

  1. Make an effort to learn something about the current events and culture of the countries you’ll be visiting. You never know when current event knowledge might come in handy, even if that just means having an interesting conversation with someone in a bar. Learning some key facts about the culture will make your travels INFINITELY easier- you’ll know the proper way to dispense payment at a store or restaurant, the tipping etiquette, the appropriate noise level in a given establishment, and maybe even a couple key words/phrases in the local language. All of the gestures go a very long way.
  2. Try to blend in! The easiest way to do this is to avoid wearing clothing with words in English or recognizable American brands. American Eagle hoodies are a pretty dead giveaway, as are university t-shirts and fraternity/sorority apparel. Leave those things at home, you don’t want someone judging you by the t-shirt you chose to wear that day.
  3. Make an effort to meet people that aren’t American when you’re traveling. The easiest way to ensure you’re not immersing yourself into the local culture is spending every waking moment you’re away from the States with other Americans. You can do that at home, go make some new (foreign) friends- you might even learn something new!
  4. If you do come across a situation in which you’re a bit ignorant (it’s okay, you can’t know everything about everything!) like the Welshman situation above, apologize for not realizing your error, and ask for more information! In that kind of situation, the person will likely be interested in explaining to you the difference between England and Wales, and it’ll be a great opportunity for you to learn something new and meet someone new.

Traveling is one of the best opportunities we, as Americans, have to change our stereotypes abroad. Be an ambassador for all of the good aspects of American culture, and try to leave the bad ones behind 😉

Useful Tools for Language Learning

Useful Tools for Language Learning

By Chelsea Lachman

The ability to speak a language can make traveling and understanding cultures much easier. If you are lucky enough to receive an education involving a foreign language, then most likely you have some basics to whichever language you were taught. But if you never had that opportunity in school and you always wanted to learn, or if you wanted to hone your skills and practice another language, then there are quite a bit of options to pick from.

The most popular option is Rosetta Stone; this language learning program can be catered to extensive learning: it teaches reading, writing, and speaking. Or, upon installation and set-up of the program, you can toggle the program to specifically teach any combination of the above. The program is rather expensive, spanning from $274 (Memorial Day Sale) to over $600, but the program is efficient in teaching a foreign language, or 33 others. Not all languages are offered past Level 1, but many offer at least up to Level 3; each level is four chapters, and within each chapter there are four sessions. Rosetta Stone is rather user friendly and introduces vocabulary in topic sets. Overall, the ultimate decision lies between the cost of the software versus the efficiency of teaching a new language.

Another popular option, at least among the 20-something year olds, is DuoLingo, a free internet website used to teach French, Italian, English, Spanish, German, and a few others for a sum total of 12; however, not all languages are offered in full because they are still in development. The site allows forum conversations to ask questions, and speakers of the language you’re learning can respond and correct you; to repay the favor, you could even contribute to the courses in English to improve the program. DuoLingo is available as an app on smart phones and tablets. It also allows for friends to follow and track each other’s progress. DuoLingo introduces vocab and grammar in relation to a topic, such as Travel, Places, Education, etc. Furthermore, the program works on points, promoting you for practicing, and in order to maintain your language, it shows which areas you need to review over a period of time. Overall, the program is easy to use and trains the learner in a variety of different vocabulary and grammar; on the downside, it requires internet service whereas Rosetta Stone is sourced from a CD.

Most smart phones and tablets offer an array of language learning apps, and often times these are geared towards more popular languages like Spanish and French. Finding a less popular language learning app is rather difficult. Busuu offers 12 languages total and offers free beginner levels for the language, but in order to proceed, you have to purchase the app. Living Language is another option, but it offers the first two lessons of the beginner level, to get past the second level, you have to purchase the app.

Obviously, picking a language learning program revolves around your language of interest (whether or not it is offered), the price, and usability of the program. In my personal usage, I have gone through all of the above four, and found Rosetta Stone really useful, but not practical due to the price, whereas DuoLingo has proven to be more affordable (it’s free!) and just as efficient in teaching a language (provided the language is already developed, like German).

http://www.rosettastone.com

http://www.duolingo.com

A Beginner’s Guide to Becoming an International Student

A Beginner’s Guide to Becoming an International Student

By Katie Ford

Since moving to the UK to do a master’s degree, I find that I’m often asked if I like university in the US or the UK better. This is one of the hardest questions to answer about my experience in Cardiff because both systems have merit, and there are certainly things that I don’t like about each. The best way for me to explain the pro’s and con’s of each is to break it down:

1. Organization and customer service

The organization of universities in the States is far superior to what I’ve experienced in the UK, in my opinion. By organization I primarily mean the administrative aspects of university. I often am not entirely sure what I am meant to be doing with coursework, forms, registering, etc. at Cardiff, and these are things that would have been explained to a nearly annoying level at Susquehanna. I have also mentioned customer service because I think that a lot of my issues with Cardiff have fallen into this area. I find it truly amazing that it takes some offices at Cardiff over a month to respond to a simple question in an e-mail, where I would probably have a response in less than a week at Susquehanna. With that being said, the difference in student population between my two universities is about 20,000 students, so Cardiff does have a bit more to handle. It seems that universities in the UK just don’t have the same kind of people-pleasing focus that is so prevalent in the US, but I think that that’s also a huge culture thing as well- I’ve found most customer service in the UK to be a bit lack-luster.

2. Teaching style

This might come down to the difference between a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree, but I find the teaching and assessment styles to be very different in the US and the UK. When I was doing my undergraduate degree, I was given many more assignments than I have in the UK. This means that each assignment was worth less, so there was a bit of wiggle room grade-wise, but it also means that I spent a lot of time doing short papers, and had less time to focus in on a specific subject. During my master’s at Cardiff, I had only one or two essays assigned per class, but each allowed me to focus on a topic I was very interested in, and gave me a lot more time to do more in-depth research. My classes in the UK also met a lot less frequently than they did at Susquehanna, and I had a lot more time studying the course material on my own. I personally liked this class structure, as I was able to do a lot at my own pace and focus on the things that I was truly interested in, allowing me to mold my degree into what I wanted it to be.

3. Expectations

The expectations at universities in the US and the UK are generally the same: do you work, pass your classes, and get your degree. But the expectations outside of the classroom seem to be a bit more diverse. Undergraduate students in the UK are expected to be much more independent and mature than students at Susquehanna are. Students in the UK begin their degrees in a specific subject from the start, and jump right into their course material. Students in the US get up to two years to decide what subject they want to major in, and even then they’re often required to take many classes that don’t count towards their major. This is completely unheard of in the UK- you choose where you go to university based on what you want to study, and you apply for that specific program. If you decide you don’t like the university and want to transfer, you often have to start over. The same goes if you want to change your degree program, most of the time that means dropping out and starting again the next year. UK students really need to have their head on straight right from the start to avoid wasting a lot of time and money.

4. Speaking of money…

The cost of university in the UK is much less than it is in the US. The prices in the UK also vary depending on where you come from, much like the state school tuition rates you might find in the States. For instance, I’m paying upwards of £3,000 more than a UK student is for the same degree, but that amount is still far less than I would be paying if I were doing my degree in the US. Additionally, my course is only 1 year long, meaning that I only have to pay the cost of living expenses for myself for one year, where I’d have to pay those for at least two years if I were doing my degree in the US. The degree I’m getting is comparable to any master’s in the US, and I will be in the job market one year earlier (fingers crossed!)

 

I am also often asked how to go about choosing a school in the UK for students who want to do an entire degree abroad. It’s understandable to be a little lost on this subject, it’s hard to know which school will give you an internationally accredited degree, which will be a “good fit” for you, etc. I was honestly a little fuzzy on the details before I started at Cardiff, not knowing how universities were ranked or viewed internationally. Fortunately, I ended up choosing a university that is internationally recognized for their European Studies research and courses, but I’ll get a bit more specific on how to choose the right uni for you.

If you’re looking to do a degree in the UK, I’d start by checking out all of the universities in the Russell Group. The Russell Group is the UK equivalent of Ivy League, but getting into these schools is definitely do-able- Cardiff University is in the Russell Group! http://www.russellgroup.ac.uk/

If you’re looking to do a degree in Europe, in general, but need to be taught in English, there are plenty of other universities that offer courses, especially post-graduate courses, in English. In Holland and Norway especially, you’ll find plenty of reputable universities that will have a wide range of offers in English.

And my last piece of advice… Make sure you talk to your undergraduate university’s study abroad office after you’ve narrowed down your choices to a handful. The study abroad advisor, or someone, in that office will probably be able to give you some insight into your choices, and will be able to let you know if they’re internationally recognized, what kind of student support they might have, or at they’ll at least be able to point you in the right direction of someone who can answer all of your questions.

Going to Cardiff to do my master’s degree is definitely one of the best academic decisions I’ve made; it’s provided me the opportunity to travel, learn about a different culture, and it’s given me incredible insight and educational value that I wouldn’t have gotten if I’d stayed in the US. Anywhere you go to study will have something different to teach you, and the things I’ve learned at Cardiff are invaluable to me.