Monday, 7 January 2013

Case in Point

Sometimes during the PhD research process, you get bogged down by the opinions of others and distracted by number-crunching and sidetracked by life, and it's easy to lose sight of what your research is really about. Sure, there's the cocktail party 2-sentence summary that you can use, but what's the real point of your research?

One of my colleagues, another international student, hates it here. She thinks Leeds is full of rude, negative people, drunken students, bad food & drink, etc. She shares news stories on Facebook about racism in the UK, and says that she has experienced abuse first-hand here in Leeds. Since I've been working from home so much this term, and she only arrived in October, I haven't talked this over with her. To be honest, I wouldn't know how to talk about it. Everyone who knows me knows that I'm an Anglophile. I see Leeds through rose-tinted glasses. I'm well aware that it has it's faults--the city centre can get rough on a Saturday night, so we go out on Friday instead.  Our favorite pubs are old-man pubs and we love real ale and pub classics like bangers & mash and steak & ale pie. You're not going to run into obnoxious students or racists in these places. We avoid dodgy areas of town, too, but I guess this is knowledge that comes with experience.

At any rate, her experience and mine represent the heart of my research. In order to understand the role of student exchange in public diplomacy practices, we must understand the nature of the international student experience.  Results and effects of the exchange experience are largely determined by background factors--personality, motivation, etc. The student who hates it here, well, she's probably going to keep on hating it because her early experiences reinforced her preconceived notions of the UK as a place where people were rude, negative and racist. I love it here because my early experiences reinforced my ideas of the UK as a place of history, culture and attractive accents (the food took some getting used to, to be fair). My own observations are confirmed by this passage that I came across in some old notes today:

Otto Klineberg, "Psychological Aspects of Student Exchange" in Eide, 1970 Students as Links Between Cultures (UNESCO study)

Motivations for studying abroad:
-desire to learn, to acquire a particular competence or speciality
--interest in the foreign or exotic in general or in one foreign culture in particular
--the hope of increasing one's status, prestige, earning capacity
--failure to be admitted to a local university (Ouch!)
--the urge to escape from an unpleasant situation or a constraining home environment
--acquiescence in ambitions held by parents
--a higher evaluation of what is 'foreign' compared with what is domestic.

"The nature of the motivation may have an influence on the whole course of the sojourn abroad, and in particular on the role of the student as a bridge between two cultures." (p. 33)

Klineberg's list, while not exhaustive, shows the wide range of possible reasons why students choose to go abroad. If a student is miserable here, the knee-jerk reaction is to suggest that they go home (or at least, go somewhere where they'd be less miserable?). But that reaction disregards their motivations. Perhaps they have a scholarship, or are working with an expert in their chosen field, or have some other important reason for being here.

Reading her posts on Facebook takes me back to freshman year, autumn 2004 at Vanderbilt University. I absolutely hated it. Like this woman, I faced rejection and comments, and witnessed the drunken frat party scene with disgust. After just 1 semester, I gave up my $23,000/year grant and transferred to UW back home, despite the fact that my mom advised me to stick it out for at least the first year. It turned out to be the  right decision for me.

I hope that my colleague finds the right decision for her, whatever it may be. I hope that, if she does stay, she sees some of the things I see in Leeds. That's what mutual understanding is all about, at the end of the day.

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