Last week in Chicago, a group of 1,400 international educators listened to the words of Dr. Lilli Engle on “What do we know now, and where do we go from here?” I’ll admit my mind wandered to the meetings I had coming up, the emails I had to get to. But several phrases and buzzwords stuck in my mind. One of these?
The Magic Wand of Immersion
Sounds ominous, right? It is. This is not your fairy godmother sent from beyond the veil to turn your pumpkin into a coach. Neither is it the genie in a bottle, which you first rubbed in your office of study abroad, promising you untold fame, fortune and a spouse overseas.
The word immersion is a throw-away term used in brochures, next to skydiving photos and a white student hugging non-white local children. Is that immersion? Many schools and their students struggle to identify the proper definition, and continuing research is showing that some students never do. As educators, we cannot promise that your 6 weeks or 6 months in a foreign country will immerse you in a new culture. Immersion is not osmosis. You cannot achieve immersion by just being there.
In December 2012, at the culmination of a study conducted by myself and my American Institute of Foreign Study colleagues, we shared with a group in Dublin the following findings: Based on a survey with 170 respondents, 100 in Europe and 70 in the U.S., we found that access and use of technology remains almost entirely the same whether a student is at home, or abroad. That made me want to use my magic wand to bop them over the head and turn them into cobblestones. And so we continue to study both tools and roadblocks that assist and deter our students from this mythical immersion experience.
How many times I have wished for a casual swish & flick to turn the tides of a travel experience, or that of my students. I am often found saying to my students, “study abroad is not a singular event.” Well here’s another gem for you: “study abroad is not a one-way street.” We drop that one in pre-departure orientation meetings, most often at the beginning of the session when my staff and I are talking about being an ambassador for the U.S., for our university, and for themselves. Here, I’ll set the stage:
Imagine yourself in a rural area. It’s hot, you’re tired, you’re probably lost and if you have to speak one more word of Spanish you’re going to freak. Then comes a barista, talkative, gracious. It takes a second or two in this god awful heat but you realize – he’s not pandering for tips or blowing you off as the dumb American. He has questions. Where are you from? How is your home? Do you like it here? Your one word answers blossom into longer explanations. He excuses himself to get your Fanta and ice, and upon return, peppers you with more questions: is your city very crowded? do you live with your parents? have you been to university? You’re charmed, even through your exhaustion. Several minutes later when you make your excuses to leave, he offers to take a photo of you in this place. You say, let’s take a photo of YOU in this place, so I can remember it. He is delighted and happy to oblige. When you tuck your chair back into the table and readjust your bag on your shoulder, he puts his hand on your arm and says, “do you know, I’ve never met an American before. I will tell my friends that they are wrong about you. Que dios te bendiga.”
The magic wand of immersion never could have touched that scene. The distance between two people changes in every foreign country, where the bubble of personal space expands and contracts. So what’s immersion? Reaching outside of that bubble and impacting another person. Sharing your culture. Sharing yourself. An active approach that calls on you, the traveler, to initiate the experience.
Our advice to our students, and my advice to you: Don’t sit back and wait for this to happen. Create these opportunities for yourself. It will make your experience far richer, and your purpose even clearer. Keep your magic wand for physics class, and use your own magic to find this elusive “immersion,” where others may never think to look.