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How to Create Authentic Experiences for Students Studying Abroad

Next week in Boston, you’ll meet some of the teachers and students involved in what is truly a model exchange program. First, a little context.

I recently gave a presentation on effective exchange programs for students. An audience member questioned what I mean when I say these activities should result in “authentic experiences.”

Here I will explore what an “authentic experience” means for students traveling abroad and propose three ways to achieve it.

“Authentic” is a genuine learning experience, not a simple representation of the destination that doesn’t require deeper investigation. In the case of designing travel programs to China, it is both futile and counterproductive if one tries to present a “real China”—a country geographically as expansive, and in many ways, no less culturally diverse than Europe. One may try to focus on the glorious past of the Great Wall, the Terra Cotta Warriors, or on the shining present of Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, or on the neglected such as ethnic minorities and migrant workers. All of these aspects are real and relevant in understanding present day China, but not one alone is a true representation. An authentic experience is categorically not about being presented a certain aspect of a country or a people. This applies to just about any destination no matter how monolithic we may think it is.

Gig Harbor – Mudanjiang Student Exchange from Asia Society on Vimeo.

Staying in China longer, traveling to more places, and getting to know more people are all remedies. But most importantly, it is about going in with a mindset to learn. [Link to global competence definition]

For program designers, this means creating an environment where students are guided to explore and experiment with their presuppositions and form new understandings about what they see. In short, it’s an authentic experience for learning.

Here are three ways to achieve it, and there are surely more:

  • Ask students to compare what they see with what they already have heard and known. Does China look rich, poor, poised to rule the world, doomed to collapse? Why?
  • Ask them to compare what different people say. What do people of different regions, ages, gender, and professions say about their lives? Why?
  • Ask them to compare the destination and their own country and community. What are the most striking differences as well as most surprising similarities in the way people go about their lives, and what does it mean?

These simple questions lead students to examine presuppositions and stereotypes, and to discover patterns and protocols to which people and societies gravitate. And that is the start of an authentic learning experience.

Technology is another candidate that comes to mind to aid in learning about cultures. Jumbo jets and the internet bring together people and cultures from afar instantaneously and at drastically lower costs.

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