Tuesday, 30 September 2014

International Student Welcome Week

For the past couple of years, I'd wanted to work with the International Student Welcome Team but was always away from Leeds in September. This year, I was available, and I'm so glad I did it--it was brilliant! The University of Leeds has the highest ranked "Welcome Experience" for international students in the UK. Now that I've been part of the Welcome Team staff, I can see why.
It's competitive, with 150 applicants for just 27 positions. All of us are well-trained, going through a full week of training for just two weeks of work. At the Information Point, we're very well-staffed--there are often four or five of us, which allows us to really help students on a one-on-one basis and it keeps wait times down, too. We provide so much support and information, from helping with online registration to recommending shops, pubs and restaurants.
This gig has been so interesting in terms of my research. I've had a glimpse of the new arrival experience for literally thousands of students. Students experiencing all of the different manifestations of culture shock--confusion, anger, nervous laughter, exhaustion, etc.--have come through the doors to our Information Point, and it's been our responsibility to answer their questions and calm their anxiety. I couldn't help but be excited for them and hope that they love it here as much as I do (although I can't really expect them to 'go native' like I did...I just hope they have a good time).
In some ways, this experience has reinforced my suspicion that the study abroad experience is the same for Fulbright and non-Fulbright alike. That is, all of the benefits of the "Fulbright experience" are also shared by those who study abroad outside of Fulbright auspices. What I would add, perhaps, is that Fulbrighters have more support, more handholding--their UK bank accounts are set up for them, for example, while we in the International Student Welcome Team give a special 30-minute talk explaining how to set up a UK bank account, and then they have to go take care of it themselves. Apart from the support of binational commissions/US embassies, the student experience may be largely the same.
I'm starting to suspect that, by the end of my career, I'll have developed some grand theory about study abroad that will probably just sound like everything everybody else has said--it's 'a life-changing experience.' 

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Street Harassment and Study Abroad

Lately I've seen a few articles and campaigns about street harassment, the everyday ways that women are harassed in public (propositions, comments about appearance, being told to smile, etc.). 'Cards Against Harassment' is my favourite one, in which a woman politely confronts men who catcall her and gives them a card with a link to her website for more info, with the tagline "It's not a compliment, it's harassment." On Twitter, the hashtag #ThatsWhatHeSaid is a collection of real comments and interactions women have had. Many of them, interestingly enough, have to do with race--creepers are not p.c. when it comes to catcalling, with remarks like, "that's a fine ass, for a white girl." More interestingly for the purposes of this blog, some of the comments are international encounters.

Experiences like these can negatively colour a visitor's impression of the country and its people.

The question of catcalling/street harassment is highly relevant for exchange participants. Getting unwanted attention is never a pleasant experience, particularly when you're many miles from home and perhaps a bit vulnerable. My first experiences with street harassment were during my university years, and I remember several instances that took place during my first months in the UK. I didn't always understand what guys were saying, either, thanks to a combination of slang and accents (in Glasgow, I just smiled and carried on walking, no clue what he'd said...). If I had these kinds of difficulties, as a native speaker of the local language, I can only imagine how difficult it must be for people facing a language barrier.

An American friend studying architecture in Rome was lost and asked a man for directions, and he replied "I can tell you how to get to my place." When she found a police officer, she got the directions she needed but received no sympathy about the first creep--"Well, can you blame him? You're beautiful!" Although she generally enjoyed her term in Rome, she was disappointed to have the stereotype of lecherous Italian men proved true (Berlusconi does nothing to help that image, either...).

My most recent example of street harassment was a couple of days after my PhD viva. I was walking through Headingley in the morning and had to pass a group of (drunk already at 10 am?) rugby fans, and was told "You're gorgeous!" When I didn't respond and kept walking, he yelled "Bitch!" It was a bit of a wake-up call, actually--even after earning a PhD, to a drunk man in the street I was just another woman to harass.

Street harassment is a negative aspect of local culture in countries all over the world. Local women may become immune to it, after many years of ignoring it, but for an international student or tourist, unwanted attention can have long-term effects on their impressions of the host country.