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Class discusses culture shock

John Cameron | Tuesday, October 2, 2012

After spending a summer in a remote part of the world, any student would find settling back into life at Notre Dame a challenge. For a group of students who participated in service or research abroad this summer, a course titled “Cultural Differences and Social Change” offers tools for integrating their abroad experiences back to life at home.

The course, taught by anthropology professor Vania Smith-Oka, is designed to facilitate reflection and cooperative learning fueled by the students’ diverse experiences, senior Alyce Kanabrocki said.

“Our summer experiences are the foundation of the class. Professor Smith-Oka is our guide, but she does a great job of steering us in the right direction and then letting us go,” she said. “While we have readings that we do for most classes, we only use them as a very basic theme of what to talk about.”

Kanabrocki spent her summer in Helekpe, a small village in the Volta region of Ghana, working with an NGO called Adaklu Youth Education Committee (AYEC), providing consulting services and teaching local youth.

The course has helped Kanabrocki expand upon the development she experienced in Ghana, she said.

“Being completely immersed in Notre Dame and American culture makes it really hard to continue to continue working through issues and carrying over lessons that I learned while in Ghana,” she said.

Kanabrocki said her classmates can relate to her experience in a way most others cannot.

“Though we all went to different places around the world and did different things, it’s so helpful and refreshing to talk to people who understand the otherwise unexplainable,” she said. “It’s also great to be surrounded by people that want to talk about their experiences as much as you do.”

Senior Kristen Kelly, who spent the past two summers doing research in Uganda, said sharing in other students’ stories and challenges has offered her greater perspective into her own.

“Talking to other students who also traveled abroad allowed to me to reflect on my own experience in a new light,” she said. “As we discover similarities and differences in our reflections, we all learn to think about our service and research in new ways.”

Kelly said the course has offered a cushion for transitioning between two differing realities.

“[The class] helps you deal with the realities of reverse culture shock and think critically about your time abroad,” she said.

Kelly said one of the course’s primary projects, developing a specialized website, provides students with a tool for building off their foreign experience beyond their in-class work.

“These websites provide an avenue through which students might continue dialogue about their experiences,” she said. “By publishing their thoughts and analysis online, they create a lasting exposition of their summer service or research experience.”

Despite their diversity of experience, the common lessons learned by members of the course have served as a strong reminder for Kanabrocki of the commonalities across human culture.

“It really shows how small the world is and emphasizes the fact that even thought there are so many different cultures around the world, we’re all human beings with desires, dreams, fears and a responsibility to not fall victim to ignorance of the world’s problems and cultural richness that exist everywhere,” she said.