Cultural Immersion through Study Abroad (2023)

Achieving The Elusive Perspective Shift

By Karen Rodriguez

Cultural Immersion through Study Abroad (1)

Some programs define cultural immersion as simply “being there,” asserting that physically studying in another country is an immersion in itself and that knowledge of another culture and language will follow naturally. While such programs range widely in design and learning outcomes, many educators feel that such an assumption can be limiting.

(Video) The Power of Cultural Immersion | This is Study Abroad

The elusive perspective shift that comes from a deeper, more critical cultural immersion experience includes empathy—the ability to see things from another point of view and evaluate situations not as American students (how would I feel in your place), but as local community members (how do you, the other, feel in your place).

It also includes critical reflection—an awareness of how one is informed by one’s own culture and makes sense of cultural differences subjectively. These skills, difficult to define and qualify, are becoming more important as students look for jobs in the global marketplace.

Experiential Programs

Experiential programs typically emphasize intense language study, homestays with local families, and heightened independent interactions with local communities—often in the form of internships, field research, or service-learning projects. They include a range of forums for enhancing the reflection process, such as discussion sessions, essay writing, field reports, and journal keeping. John Wallace in “Educational Values of Experiential Education” suggests that “the right kind of experiential education constitutes a personal challenge, the meeting of which produces outcomes which cannot be achieved very often through books, reports, lectures, discussions, and tests.

These outcomes include an increased self-confidence, a deeper awareness of one’s own strengths and weaknesses, and a heightened knowledge of effective approaches to other human beings—all of which come from having functioned successfully in a strange environment and under a different set of ground rules from those found in one’s own culture.”

(Video) Exploring a new culture through study abroad

Most proponents of experiential education maintain that it not only requires students to reconceptualize their own relationship to the learning process and to assume responsibility for learning, but also asks facilitators to take less of a leading role, refraining from setting themselves up as “experts” who transfer knowledge to passive students. While this is challenging both for students and for facilitators in any sort of experiential program, it is particularly tricky in the study abroad context.

The Student’s Perspective

For students, a foreign setting is more demanding. They have to communicate in a new language while finding new, culturally appropriate strategies to seek out interactions. For many students it is difficult to accept not being well prepared for everything and not being able to “read ahead,” so to speak. The safe structure of classroom learning in which they normally excel is yanked away and replaced by a chaotic, exotic reality that challenges them to maintain clear vision and take charge of their learning process in ways they have never done before. They often undergo feelings of stress, frustration, anxiety, and rejection as they struggle with new experiences.

If experiencing becomes more difficult, the next phase of the experiential learning cycle, making meaning, is much more complicated. As students find out, intercultural communication glitches play havoc with verbal and nonverbal behavioral clues and make quick and accurate interpretation of experiences difficult.

We also ask students to consider the situated nature of their knowledge and to reconstruct previous ideas. But because we have labeled their knowledge as ethnocentric, situated, and contextual, it becomes difficult for them to extricate and to define their viewpoint.

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The Facilitator’s Perspective

One of our primary functions is to make discovery possible, encouraging a sense of adventure, a willingness to “get out there and do it,” and a determination to seek out learning. We are also responsible for students’ well-being. We cannot knowingly allow them to make mistakes that could potentially endanger their health or safety. This means that while we may consider ourselves experiential educators, we also have to step in and out of the authority figure role.

At the same time, we are responsible to the host community. We depend upon its hospitality, tolerance, and goodwill, and we cannot look at it simply as a laboratory for student experiments in intercultural learning. This means that there may be moments when we cannot afford to allow students to make a particular mistake or to choose to act inappropriately and offend the community.

Finally, we have a responsibility as educators to our home institutions who are concerned with articulating and demonstrating that immersion does occur and that learning is taking place. We need to create assignments that both show and balance evolving knowledge about self and about other (i.e. neither too much introspection nor too much fact-gathering).

Achieving the Perspective Shift

(Video) The Importance of Cultural Immersion and Studying Abroad to Students and Families

Despite the difficulties inherent in both the student and facilitator roles, students can and do achieve the desired perspective shift. Much depends upon the individual student’s desire to learn, but there are certain types of activities that enhance the possibility that more students achieve this important outcome during the study abroad experience:

  • Fieldwork techniques offer a particularly effective model for training students to see deeper and to develop better listening and question-posing skills. By designing exercises that emphasize one or two skills at a time, we help delimit what to look for without giving away the discovery. Exercises also provide students with a structure in which to work and analyze.
    Observations, interviews, community or neighborhood mapping, and other activities allow students to practice seeing from another angle and hearing more carefully. As students begin to pay more attention to what they see, frame more appropriate questions, and better hear the answers, they gain valuable insights about both the culture and their previous understandings of it.
  • Creative writing exercises allow students to take on the part of a host mother or a person on the street, or write within a more thematic context—trying to see things from a doctor’s perspective if they are studying health or an NGO worker if they are studying community organizations. These exercises essentially turn the tables on students and force them to discuss and potentially resolve issues as cultural insiders.
  • Short readings or examples of reflexive writing can also provide an important tool to help students deconstruct their own knowledge. By teaching students how to extricate their own views as they analyze and then write these views back into their work, we help students learn to more carefully situate their knowledge base within their own identities and inevitable biases. This is one of the most useful ways to get them thinking critically.
  • Finally, ongoing discussion sessions provide both a forum and a framework in which students can process their experiences. These should not be viewed by students as gripe sessions or how’s-it-going sessions; rather, they should see the sessions as opportunities to compare, evaluate, and create knowledge as a group. Readings about the immersion process, culture shock, and American culture all provide good points of departure for student discussions. As the immersion process deepens, these are increasingly effective.

There is no formula that can produce the perspective shift automatically, but two points seem important: First, a program should not privilege one particular type of activity. Students’ learning styles vary, and different students will “get it” through different means. Second, all of these activities must be carefully contextualized within the larger learning goals and philosophy of the program, such that each systematically reinforces the program philosophy in a range of guises and styles. This gives students continued opportunities to have that breakthrough moment.

Immersion as Baptism

Of all the metaphors I’ve found to describe cultural immersion—plunging in, submergence, dousing, steeping, sousing, marinating, etc.—the image that struck me was that of baptism. Baptism, in the cultural immersion context, implies letting go, accepting risk, and acknowledging that one is about to go under. While under, there occurs a transformation, and when the person emerges from the experience, he or she is the same but also changed, having acquired new vision that will affect his or her perception and daily behavior.

As facilitators in this baptism, we can help students find the river, even push them into the water, but we do not have the power to effect the transformation. The actual shift requires that the students have faith, that they value both the journey and the discovery, and that they keep striving to immerse further, convinced that this endeavor is both possible and worthwhile. An experiential program asks students to embrace intellectual and personal challenges. The struggle to do so can produce major shifts in the ways students view the world and interact with people whose worldviews differ greatly from their own.

(Video) Full Cultural Immersion and Language Learning Experience Abroad

KAREN RODRIGUEZ directs Pitzer College’s experiential study abroad program in Latin America and is finishing a masters degree in applied anthropology at the Univ. of Maryland-College Park.

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Study Abroad Advisor


How does studying abroad help you culturally? ›

“In terms of cultural awareness, we take so many things for granted when we never encounter others with different expectations or assumptions. Students who study abroad return having learned about themselves, their own cultural values and beliefs. It's easier to see one's own culture in relation to another,” Alm said.

How do you deal with culture shock while studying abroad? ›

Coping strategies
  1. Admit frankly that these impacts exist. ...
  2. Learn the rules of living in your host country. ...
  3. Get involved in some aspect of the new culture. ...
  4. Take time to learn the language. ...
  5. Take care of yourself. ...
  6. Travel. ...
  7. Make friends and develop relationships. ...
  8. Maintain contact with friends and family back home.
27 Apr 2016

How do you immerse in different cultures throughout the world? ›

How to best immerse yourself in a country's culture for the ultimate local experience
  1. Research the local customs and traditions. ...
  2. Learn the language. ...
  3. Venture beyond the tourist attractions. ...
  4. Indulge in local food and drink. ...
  5. Explore the landscape. ...
  6. Take public transport. ...
  7. Engage in the arts. ...
  8. Work or volunteer abroad.

What is the purpose of cultural immersion? ›

Cultural immersion is an important part of learning to understand other people and communicate effectively across borders. Today, there are more than 300 distinct languages and dialects spoken in the United States, but much of our public school education does not include a second language until middle or high school.

Why is studying abroad challenging cultural differences? ›

You would experience some culture shock when studying abroad, each country has its own culture and you may find it difficult to integrate. As a foreigner, you would not know 100% of the host country's culture, even if you have already done your research.

What skills can you gain from studying abroad? ›

Here are five career-related skills you can develop while studying abroad.
  • Communication. Studying in a foreign country enhances your communication skills. ...
  • Resilience. ...
  • Practical Skills. ...
  • Creativity. ...
  • Cultural Awareness.

What is culture shock in international students? ›

Culture shock describes the impact of moving from a familiar culture to one that is unfamiliar. It includes the shock of a new environment, meeting lots of new people and learning the ways of a new country.

How can you avoid cultural misunderstandings when you go abroad? ›

How to Avoid Cultural Misunderstandings when Traveling or Doing Business
  1. Don't Expect Everyone to Understand and Speak your Language. ...
  2. Don't become Culturally Blind. ...
  3. Beware of your Body Language. ...
  4. Don't think you are better just because of where you're from. ...
  5. Do not (always) Stereotype. ...
  6. Do as we do!
23 Mar 2016

How does culture shock impact you when you move abroad? ›

Culture shock is adjustment to a new culture and environment when you move to live abroad. It can happen when you experience cultures that are different to the one you have known. Culture shock can lead to a mix of emotions, including anxiety, loss of confidence, excitement, confusion, loneliness and uncertainty.

What is cultural immersion education? ›

Cultural immersion is an educational method that aims to increase cultural knowledge and sensitivity. The purpose of this type of educational experience is to create opportunities for transformational learning through direct interactions with culturally diverse populations.

How do students connect with different cultures? ›

1. Build a relationship with every student.
  1. Demonstrating interest in students' welfare.
  2. Respecting students' perspectives.
  3. Telling students they can succeed.
  4. Knowing students' academic and social needs.
  5. Recognizing students' academic and social achievements.
11 May 2018

Why is it important for students to learn about other cultures? ›

Students who learn about different cultures during their education feel more comfortable and safe with these differences later in life. This allows them to interact in a wider range of social groups and feel more confident in themselves as well as in their interactions with others.

Why is work immersion important for you as a student? ›

This aims to better equip senior high school students for college, work or business; develop life and career skills; and have attitudes, appreciation and respect for work. It also allows them to have a smooth transition from school to work after they gain valuable experience.

What is the importance of community immersion as a student? ›

Community immersion allows individuals who are not familiar with the people and communities where they will work immerse themselves in these settings. This gives them the opportunity to reflect on their assumptions, attitudes, and the knowledge base of their profession and to gain cultural competence.

What is the purpose of work immersion and how will this help you as a student? ›

Through Work Immersion, the students are exposed to and become familiar with work-related environment related to their field of specialization to enhance their competence.

Why studying abroad is one of the most culturally valuable experiences you one can have in college? ›

With study abroad, you can experience new places and cultures, make friends from around the world, and gain a global perspective–while earning credits towards your degree. It will allow you to develop highly-valued skills such as intercultural communication, foreign languages, adaptability, and problem-solving.

How important is it to understand cultural differences when traveling overseas? ›

Simply put: cultural sensitivity will make your life better and your travels smoother. While we may or may not share the same points of view or practices, understanding people from different cultures shows respect and can allow us to more fully enjoy the places we visit.

What are the most challenging aspects of studying abroad? ›

Challenges of Studying Abroad

being too far away from family, course requirements of existing curriculum, finances, language and cultural barriers, and health and dietary issues.

How studying abroad changes your life? ›

Studying abroad forces you to become truly independent from your parents and family. You will be on your own, making adult decisions and, maybe for the first time, truly taking care of yourself. You will likely develop or enhance your problem-solving skills, social skills, and time management skills.

How can studying abroad shape you as a personality? ›

Grow your personality

When studying abroad, you'll learn to rely on others, become adaptable, and problem solve, all of which will help you keep advancing as a person.

How will studying abroad benefit my future? ›

Study Abroad has been shown to develop skills that all employers value. Even if you don't intend to work for an international employer or aren't sure of your career goals, developing traits like resourcefulness, adaptability, resilience, and empathy will give you an edge in any job market.

Why students studying abroad tend to lose their own culture? ›

International students often suffer from culture shock, because: they feel a sudden lack of home support and familiar environment. the new environment seems to be irrational, unpleasant or even hostile. they lack language or people skills to get accustomed to a new culture.

Why should we improve students awareness of culture shock? ›

Actions to help students suffering culture shock. Feeling welcomed and part of a community is fundamental to positive learning experience. It affects students' well-being and increases study motivation and therefore academic success.

How can students help culture shock? ›

*Help students connect to activities that might interest them outside of school. Art classes, sports teams, and hobby programs can help students feel part of a new community network. *Encourage students to find or form support groups with other students who may be at the same point in the U-curve of culture shock.

How should students do to avoid misunderstandings about cultures? ›

How to Avoid Miscommunication with Different Cultures
  1. 1 Keep a respectful distance until you get to know someone.
  2. 2 Speak slowly and deliberately.
  3. 3 Use simple, straightforward language.
  4. 4 Tone down gestures and hand signals.
  5. 5 Address the person politely by their surname.
  6. 6 Make brief, frequent eye contact.

What cultural problems do people face when they travel abroad? ›

What's stopping you from going abroad? 5 common problems and solutions
  • Homesickness. Problem: Homesickness has been described as a grief reaction, like having lost a loved one. ...
  • Traveling alone. Problem: Being by yourself in another country can be scary. ...
  • Money. ...
  • Cultural differences. ...
  • Misunderstandings.
29 Nov 2019

What are the positive effects of moving to another country? ›

Top 7 benefits of living and working abroad
  • Better self-esteem. ...
  • New life skills. ...
  • New perspective on life. ...
  • Better communication skills. ...
  • Better foreign language skills. ...
  • Advantage over other jobseekers. ...
  • Expand your professional network. ...
  • Related links:
13 Dec 2021

What is the best way to prepare for life in another culture? ›

How To Prepare For Life In A New Country
  1. Save ahead as early as possible. ...
  2. Make sure your documents are valid. ...
  3. Get any visas you need. ...
  4. Check if you need healthcare. ...
  5. Have property organized. ...
  6. Research as much as possible. ...
  7. Let companies know you're moving. ...
  8. Prepare for reverse culture shock.
17 May 2019

Can you experience culture shock in your own country? ›

Culture shock not only occurs when traveling to a foreign land. It can be experienced within one's own country during domestic travel.

What is a cultural immersion? ›

Cultural Immersion means integrating yourself into another culture, interacting with locals and understanding the way others live. Whether you are studying abroad for a year or for spring break, there are different tips you can follow to help maximize your experience abroad and better understand your host country.

What is a cultural immersion program? ›

Many programs combine cultural activities with volunteerism or language immersion, which helps participants to feel more invested in their host country, either through the bonds of communal labor or through developing a shared language. Cultural immersion programs also often include language immersion elements.

What are 3 examples of cultural learning? ›

Cultural learning manifests itself in three forms during human ontogeny: imitative learning, instructed learning, and collaborative learning - in that order.

How can you promote your culture as a student? ›

Let's look at some ways that can you share your culture with others:
  1. Volunteer to teach a language class or share your culture at a school (elementary/middle or high school) or university. ...
  2. Give a presentation at the library about your country or travels. ...
  3. Teach a skill from your culture (craft, cooking, game, etc.).

How can you encourage students to participate in cultural activities? ›

Encouraging students to participate in cultural activities is the most effective way to inculcate personality-related skills.
Cultural Activities in School
  1. Local festival celebration.
  2. Charity Events.
  3. Parades.
  4. Sports events.
  5. Dance and music competitions.
  6. Painting competitions.
  7. Debates and speeches.
  8. Exhibition and workshop.

How does culture affect students education? ›

Cultural differences can often be subtle; however, they do impact students' learning. For example, learners from different cultures can have different views on classroom behavior, such as student-teacher interaction, as well as different views on the value of education.

How important it is for you to learn the culture of other countries? ›

Embracing different cultures through travel allows you to experience what it's like to be a part of a community other than your own. It also gives you cultural awareness and acceptance, which can help break down cultural barriers while interacting with people of different backgrounds.

What benefits can we gain from work immersion? ›

an understanding of the work environment and what employers expect of their workers. an opportunity to explore possible career options. increased self-understanding, maturity, independence and self-confidence. increased motivation to continue study and/or undertake further training.

What is work immersion in your own words? ›

Work immersion refers to the subject of the senior high school curriculum, which involves hands-on experience or work simulation in which learners can apply their competencies and acquired knowledge relevant to their track.

What are the benefits of immersion? ›

Research covering more than 40 years of language immersion instruction shows that children who receive a variety of cognitive benefits such as mental flexibility, nonverbal problem-solving abilities, and enhanced critical thinking skills.

What benefits can a student get from participating in community service? ›

Develop Skills

Through community service, students gain real-world experience and practice important habits like leadership, problem-solving, and time management. Volunteering offers students the opportunity to apply their classroom learning to practical scenarios that have real implications.

How will work immersion helps students in their future deployment? ›

Work immersion teachers and coordinators should develop a program focusing on the development of self-efficacy of the learners before their deployment to different industry partners. This program would help learners to trust their own ability and develop their self-confidence.

What new and useful insights did you gain from your work immersion experience? ›

You should gain an awareness of the working environment and expectations of employers from work experience. an opportunity to investigate potential career paths. greater maturity, independence, and self-confidence in oneself.

How does traveling help you learn about culture? ›

Travel provides a learning experience like no other. It inspires people to seek out new places, keeping their pool of knowledge constantly topped up. It's a great way to not only learn new things and immerse yourself in a new culture – it also provides a constant urge to continue learning.

What are the cultural benefits of migration? ›

In reality, immigrants change culture for the better by introducing new ideas, expertise, customs, cuisines, and art. Far from erasing the existing culture, they expand it. Immigrants Improve Economies Through Hard Work and Entrepreneurship.

What is the importance of studying cultural? ›

It helps us answer certain questions like why do we need to follow rules and what impact can our actions make to other people. Culture study, in general, allows us to understand how the different cultures came about. It also gives an overview of how peoples' behaviors vary from one place to another.

What are benefits of studying culture and tradition? ›

In addition to its intrinsic value, culture provides important social and economic benefits. With improved learning and health, increased tolerance, and opportunities to come together with others, culture enhances our quality of life and increases overall well-being for both individuals and communities.

What is cultural immersion? ›

Cultural Immersion means integrating yourself into another culture, interacting with locals and understanding the way others live. Whether you are studying abroad for a year or for spring break, there are different tips you can follow to help maximize your experience abroad and better understand your host country.

Do you think it is important to study the culture of the country when you learn its language? ›

Culture is essential when studying languages. Because understanding cultural background–art, literature, lifestyle– helps you reach language proficiency and really live the language while you learn. Otherwise, you may as well just stick to a garbled machine translation and staring at people in books.

How does migration lead to cultural change? ›

First, migrants create cultural melting pots and change the cultural composition of host societies through mere mixing. Additionally, immigrants may disseminate their values and norms to natives in the receiving countries.

What are the benefits of cultural appreciation? ›

It allows others to learn more about a culture different from theirs. This leads to a better understanding and appreciation of perspectives and traditions different from our own. It's important to understand that sharing and taking are two very different things.

How do cultural factors influence migration? ›

Cultural push factors usually involve slavery, political instability, ethnic cleansing, famine, and war. People who choose to flee or are forced to flee as a result of these problems are often refugees.

What is the importance of culture in your life as a student? ›

Culture influences how we see the world, how we see the community that we live in, and how we communicate with each other. Being a part of a culture influences our learning, remembering, talking and behaving. Therefore culture determines to a great extent the learning and teaching styles also.

Why cultural activities are important for students? ›

Educational Benefits

The cultural activities enhance the confidence level of the students thereby allowing them to perform better. These activities develop the personality of the students and assist them in shaping a good career. In fact, students can also leverage the advantage of participating in various activities.

How does culture impact education? ›

Numerous cultural forces connect to children's school experiences and academic achievement. These include parental beliefs, socialization practices, and cultural worldviews. Cultural values, practices, and ways of learning at home both shape and connect to children's formal school experiences.

What are the benefits to expanding your world view to include a knowledge of other cultures? ›

Learning about other cultures expands students' appreciation of diversity and expands their own worldview. It provides opportunities for critical thinking and analysis, new approaches to subject matter, and cross-cultural communication.


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