When you hear the word immersion what comes to mind? A dip in the pool of culture? A cannonball in the lake of language? A chance to “go native?” Immersion is one of many buzzwords in education abroad today. It wiggled its way into the rhetoric, and even debuted in Sh*t Study Abroad Students say. So what does it mean?
In a workshop last spring Michael Vande Berg, Vice President for Academic Affairs at the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE), made an obvious statement and a true one, immersion is interactive. More buzz words, right? Wrong.
Immersion, like tango, takes two.
Both student and host culture are involved, working toward a common goal – be it language acquisition, cultural awareness or a better understanding of one another.
I have a strong dislike for the phrase “go native.” For me it conjures up images of ornery expats holding court in a local restaurant or Jersey Shore deviants buying grass skirts at the market. Don’t “go native.” Just go. Go with an open mind, a good attitude and a flexible agenda. Go with your eyes open, and respect as your guide. Go with questions in mind, camera in hand and come home with new knowledge. Plan to share all three when you return.
Next Sunday I will not only spring forward, I will head south to Central America into 90 degree heat, sunshine, and Spanish. I am leading a group of 8 female students to Granada, Nicaragua for spring break. These women are challenging themselves to improve their Spanish outside of the classroom.
As a customized faculty-led program, it boasts many of the comfort factors which make this and programs like it the #1 study abroad choice at my university. Four reasons stand out: 1) short-term program, 2) group travel, 3) scheduled activities, 4) leader familiarity. Our students consistently choose programs that are short (2 to 4 weeks), led by a faculty or staff member they know, with an itinerary followed by the entire group. They will travel together, lodge together and often complete coursework together at each stage of the program.
But WAIT, you may argue … I thought the point of study abroad was to get outside of your comfort zone?
Yes, I agree. But some people prefer to test the water before jumping right in. Can you blame them?
I point to psychologist Abraham Maslow for research on this. He is well known for his work on human motivation, and the “Hierachy of Needs.” Although his theory was first penned in 1943, his points hold true today. Maslow believes that in order for individuals to truly gain from their experiences, they must first have basic physiological needs satisfied. Can you breathe? Do you have access to food, water and shelter? The next step is safety, a key factor in study abroad: security of body, mind, health, resources, finances, etc. It is here students must confirm their feelings of safety (and comfort) before moving up the pyramid to self-actualization. This is what comfort looks like, and it doesn’t look the same for everyone.
Does this one week program qualify as an immersion experience? Yes. My students will be living with host families while we’re on the ground, a huge bonus for their language acquisition. Not only will they be tested in the classroom, but also in the home, where communicating for those basic human needs like food and water will be necessary. We will also be spending our afternoons zip-lining through the rainforest, climbing volcanoes, exploring bat caves and attending a local festival. Our last day will be spent on the beach, where we will focus on immersion in the Pacific Ocean.
Much of our data shows that students returning from a short-term experience will often come back for more. This continuous travel broadens their perspective, and helps them establish their place in the world. They become ambassadors and travelaholics, like so many of their advisors (myself included).
It is not a trip. It is not a tour. It is an experience. And I think we’re going to have a damn good time!