Cross-cultural experiences change students’ perspectives
Stories of transformative experiences and life-long lessons filled Founders Hall Tuesday morning as students shared memories from their May-term, cross-cultural experiences. Eighty-two Bluffton University students participated in a cross-cultural last spring. Those students took part in one of five different experiences including travels to Bangladesh, Iceland, Arizona/Mexico, Kentucky/West Virginia and Chicago.
Fourteen students traveled to Bangladesh for Bluffton’s first cross-cultural opportunity in the South Asian country. Students spent much of their time learning about fair trade through Prokritee, a fair trade company which supports 1,500 artisans in rural areas of the country. Alicia Loch ’18, a biology major from Quakertown, Pa., supported fair trade enterprises before the experience, but going to Bangladesh opened her eyes to the importance of a living wage.
“Before when I went to 10,000 Villages, I never really understood the stories of the women making the items and what they came from to make that item and how it’s changing their lives. Fair trade is expensive because people need to make a living, and these women are coming from nothing,” said Loch. “Now, these women have jobs, they’re getting education, they have homes and they are getting skills to find other work. To have a connection with the women making the items I’m buying is just the most beautiful thing I have ever felt.”
During the experience, students also traveled through the Sundarbans, a natural mangrove forest best known as the home of the Bengal tiger.
Students traveled the entire circumference of the island during the 16-day Iceland experience. Highlights of their experience included working on a sheep farm during lambing season and planting more than 1,000 trees at the base of a volcano. Students learned about environmental protections on this experience and toured natural features of Iceland including glacial lagoons, geysers and hot springs. The students also went whale watching. Participants experienced quite a bit of culture shock during this experience, but in a different way than many students involved in other cross-cultural opportunities.
“All students who go on a cross-cultural experience come back with a new perspective on how we live our lives. While most others witnessed poverty in areas that made them thankful for all they have back home, Iceland did not do that, and in fact it was almost the opposite,” said Emily Griffith, an accounting and business administration major from Marion, Ohio. “I think my generation, and many others, grew up believing that all people in other countries wanted to live in America. While I knew before my experience that this was not true, I learned that I subconsciously still believed it. Iceland showed me I was wrong. It was very humbling to see a nation of people content with their lives that were not Americans.”
Students learned about several different cultures living within a relatively short distance from each other during the cross-cultural experience to Arizona and Mexico including the cultures of several American Indian tribes.
“Being able to move from Phoenix to the Hopi culture to the Navajo culture and back was a whirlwind. I learned so much,” said Nick Jones ‘17, a history major from Millersport, Ohio. “It’s amazing how different this country is that we live in. Arizona is nothing like Ohio. It just blew my mind how different life is even within our own country. “
During the experience, students also traveled to a remote part of Mexico to build a small home for a family of seven. Even though there was a language barrier, the group formed relationships through worship and celebrations.
The Appalachian experience began in McDowell County, West Virginia, where students assisted Mennonite Central Committee’s Sharing With Appalachian People program by renovating mobile homes. The experience later moved to Kentucky where students filmed community change makers for Appalshop, a media, arts and education center located in the heart of the Southern Appalachian region of the United States. Students experienced the devastating impact of the coal industry on the land in Appalachia but also witnessed the devastating impact the decline of the coal industry had on the community.
Amanda Hunt ’17, a business administration and marketing student from Navarre, Ohio, was inspired by the work being done to transition the community from the blue collar coal jobs that no longer exist to positions that focus on tourism, Appalachian history and education.
“They’re trying to move the community forward in a way that brings people back when so many have left,” said Hunt. “They’re trying to get past being known as the hillbilly culture and letting people know they are real people. Yes, they live off of the mountains, but it’s where they’ve been for years, and there is a deeper history behind the poverty than what we initially see.”
During the Chicago experience, students lived at the Olive Branch Mission, a homeless shelter in a portion of Chicago referred to as Chiraq because of high crime rates and violence. The experience was led by Dr. Walter Paquin, associate professor of social work.
Students were assigned different areas to work in while at the mission. Patrick Tea ‘17, a chemistry and physics major from Fremont, Ohio, was a GED tutor.
“I enjoyed learning about the people’s life experiences and learning their stories. They helped me get a better understanding of the challenges of growing up in a big city like Chicago. One person I met had a friend die, he witnessed him die, when he was in the eighth grade,” said Tea. “I didn’t experience that growing up in small-town Ohio. Now, I can better empathize with him. I can better understand what people are growing through.”
Eleven Bluffton students are currently taking part in a cross-cultural experience in Guatemala and one student is participating in the Washington Community Scholars Center.