Students studying abroad face challenges with cultural differences

Students and teachers from around the world gathered Nov. 19 to communicate, in a panel discussion, the ups and downs, pros and cons, and ins and outs of studying abroad.

Seniors Liz Christian, international business major, and Victoria Kudrak, special education major, came together with exchange students Suthasinee Saisaengjaemsanga (better known as Fa) from Thailand, Hannah Nossek from Germany and Patricia Torres from Puerto Rico to discuss the cultural differences and challenges students face when studying abroad.

The event, sponsored by the Modern Languages department, PNC Bank, the College Art Gallery, and the office of International and Off-Campus Programs, took place as part of International Education Week.

According to Simona Wright, professor of modern languages, the theme of International Education Week was “bridging cultural divides.”

“The best way to cross borders is to immerse oneself in another language and culture, to learn about its history and society, to meet its people and enjoy their customs,” Wright said.

To begin the panel, Kudrak spoke about her experiences in Chile in the spring of 2008.

“(Until I went to Chile) I thought I was good at Spanish,” she said. “(The first day of class) was the day I learned that I stunk at Spanish.”

All joking aside, Kudrak explained a phenomena echoed by the other panel members: the difficulty of being completely immersed in a language for the first time.

“It was extremely difficult,” she said, explaining that Chilean expressions and style are different from the Spanish taught in classrooms. Christian, who studied in Frankfurt from March to July of 2008, thought she knew enough German to find her way around and understand the basics, but soon realized that she was “way wrong.”

“My classes were full of Germans,” she said, as she did not attend an American satellite university. “That really sped up my learning.”

Torres, on the other hand, claimed the language barrier was not as difficult for her.

“I’ve been studying English since I was in the first grade,” she said. “Bilingual private schools (in Puerto Rico) have good English programs.”

Another major issue the panel discussed was adjustment to food and meal times.

Kudrak “did not know what to expect” from Chilean food and claimed she gained 10 pounds because the food is almost always fried. She explained that meals last at least an hour, during which you “can’t deny your Chilean mom” when she makes so much food.

“Weight is not an issue in Chile,” she said. “There is no emphasis on being really skinny.”

Fa and Torres complained that their native cuisines are completely different than that of the College.

“Food in Thailand (is) so delicious, but when I go to Eickhoff (Hall) . no comment,” Fa said.

Despite other difficulties, the group agreed on the general experience of studying abroad.

“It was very dynamic. You learn a lot about things,” Christian said. “Everyday you are learning something new about everyone.”

Nossek added, “I love experiencing all the different cultures, even within the states.”

Overall, the students and teachers explained the opportunity to see the world and other cultures is the best reason to consider studying abroad.