My Study Abroad Experience in Cuenca, Ecuador

by Anna Rice, ’16 (Biomedical Sciences)

As an incoming freshman, I knew I wanted to study abroad, but I was unsure about where and for how long. As I continued my Spanish language classes through my freshman and sophomore years, I explored the idea of studying abroad in a Spanish-speaking country. Through the individual study program at Minnesota State University, Mankato I chose to travel and study in Ecuador for 8 weeks to further my Spanish language skills. Because it is an individual study program, I was responsible for booking flights and traveling to Cuenca, Ecuador on my own. I was extremely nervous, as I think most people would be, but I said my goodbyes and boarded a plane to South America!

Once I arrived, my host family picked me up and took me back to their home. They were warm and welcoming and did not speak a word of English! I was definitely out of my comfort zone, but I tried to catch as much as I could and with in a week, I could already understand ten times more Spanish than the first night of my trip. It just goes to show, things that you aren’t comfortable with don’t have to be uncomfortable forever. I started classes at Estudio Sampere, the sister university through Minnesota State University, Mankato. There were a handful of Mankato students involved in my same program. We had not all met before arriving, but we became quick friends. We attended school from 7:30 am to 12 pm every day, taking grammar and discussion based courses, with around 5 to 6 students each. After class, I would return home for lunch, and do some homework until mid afternoon. Almost every day I would meet up with the other students from school and hang out at a café or go explore the city. We tried to immerse ourselves in the culture as much as we could by visiting markets, restaurants, cathedrals, orphanages etc. We had our fair share of fun, and my Spanish greatly improved as I was speaking more and more each day. By the end of my trip, I would go to class and not even think about what I was going to say, or worry about not understanding an assignment. By the time I finished my 12 credits at Estudio Sampere, I was ranked the level below a fluent Spanish speaker.

As we only had class Monday through Friday, on the weekends we were free to roam. The school did offer optional weekend trips like hiking through the Andes or visiting ancient ruins, which we took full advantage of. Other weekends we took off to explore on our own. One of my favorite parts of my study abroad experience was the trip we took to the Amazon Rain forest. After riding a Grey Hound bus for nine hours through the winding roads of El Cajas National Park in the Andes Mountains, we arrived in Puyo, a small town in central Ecuador. We stayed in cabins at what I would compare to a camp ground run by a local family. We went on hikes, canoed, swam in waterfalls, and visited a village of indigenous people. We were fortunate enough to spend the day learning how they make jewelry to sell, how they hunt, and their traditional dances and foods. I was immersed in their culture and was able to see first-hand how different their lives were compared to mine without running water or electricity. Interacting with the natives and learning about their culture was incredible. It was an absolutely amazing and eye-opening experience that I will remember for the rest of my life. The weekend to the jungle was definitely one of the best weekends of my trip.

Ecuador was one of the greatest experiences of my life and I would absolutely recommend studying there or just visiting. I made so many memories and had the opportunity to meet people from all over the world with whom I have made life-long friends. Anyone pondering the idea of studying abroad anywhere, DO IT! The experiences you gain and the people you meet will have a lasting impact on your undergraduate career and your life.

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Some of My Favorite Intercultural Encounters

An inspiring insight on culture as a warm welcome to campus by your Honors Director, Dr. Dahlman

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Global citizenship to me does not necessarily mean exotic travel to faraway places. Just traveling to new places without investing in learning about cultures is just that, traveling. Globally minded citizens engage with people from different cultures wherever and whenever.   It is my life’s mission to learn about other people, their cultures and views and promote intercultural understanding.

I would like to share just a couple of my favorite intercultural encounters and what I learned from them.  One of my favorite interactions has been with a student who I got to know in one of my classes many years ago at MSU, Mankato. She was from Egypt and had also lived in Kenya. She had lived half of her life in a refugee camp.  Coming to the U.S. and Minnesota meant an amazing opportunity for her both personally and professionally.  However, she faced many obstacles while in college.  Despite the fact that she was a brilliant individual, she wasn’t always able to demonstrate this through her language abilities. She told me that failure was not an option for her because her professional goals were not hers alone but that her hopes and dreams were also for the people back home in Africa. We stayed in touch when she graduated. I just saw her a month ago at the University of Minnesota, where she is currently in Medical School (and doing really well!!).  She has taught me so many lessons about resilience, hope and commitment.

When we talk about cultures, we don’t just mean ethnicity, race or different countries.  My next example deals with culture in terms of socio-economic status.  This incident happened last winter. I was sitting at a coffee shop in the Twin Cities on a Saturday morning. I saw a homeless person sitting on a park bench outside of the coffee shop.  It was chilly and he did not have a coat on.  From the corner of my eye I saw how he entered the coffee shop (I assumed to warm up a bit) but was escorted out as he did not purchase a drink.  I stood up and went outside to him and asked him if I could purchase a coffee for him. He looked me in the eyes and said, “Thank you ma’am.” I purchased a huge cup of coffee and a muffin for him.  Five minutes later I saw how he stood up and walked right into the coffee shop and sat down in one of the comfy leather chairs and drank his coffee.  That day I learned the lesson of human dignity and how we can do little things to help even if we cannot rescue people.

My last example of a cultural encounter happened last December when I was in Warsaw, Poland, to do a workshop for teachers there.  I take pride in the fact that I speak several languages and always try to accommodate communication by speaking the local language.  However, I don’t speak any Polish.  Many people spoke English there but not all. I noticed how people who knew very little English tried so hard so that we could communicate.  I felt bad as I was in their country and they had to accommodate to my needs.  I understand that English is a common language for people across the globe, but we still need to be aware of the truths underlying those communications, for example, who gets to speak in their language? How do we show respect through language choice and communication? How does language relate to power? That was a very humbling experience for me.  At a minimum, we should never just start speaking English, assuming that the other person speaks/understands English, but always kindly ask if that indeed is the case.

I look forward to a great year in Honors! I look forward to hearing about your intercultural encounters (old and new) and the learning that resulted from them. Always remember:

“Life begins at the end of our comfort zone.” – Neale Donald Walsch

Honors International Students Spotlight

The Honors Program at Minnesota State University, Mankato encourages students to study abroad and develop intercultural relationships in order to fulfill their global citizenship competency. Naturally, we are welcoming to international students who visit Minnesota State, and invite a number of them to join our Program during their stay. Three of these students who are currently with us have agreed to share their experiences.

Victoria

Victoria Camasmie, ’18

(Business Management and Marketing; Brazil)

I am enjoying my second semester here at Minnesota State and I have been having an amazing experience so far. Being far away from home can be hard sometimes, but I think feeling homesick is a very common feeling among all students, especially for those who are visiting from other countries. I believe international students bond with each other because we are all going through this same situation. One of the things I miss the most about Brazilian culture is our food. I also miss the hot weather back home. I knew Mankato was cold, but I did not know it was so windy!  It is difficult to come to a new place where the culture is so different from the one you grew up in, but living abroad and being able to speak another language is an experience that only one who goes through it knows how it feels. The world is so big and filled with different cultures! I want to know as many cultures as I possibly can. Intercultural exchange opens up my mind and gives me the opportunity to understand people in a better way. Being a member of the Honors Program, participating in extracurricular activities, and doing volunteer work has given me the chance to engage with the community and meet new people. I love living in Mankato. However, it is just the beginning of my journey into the world.

Prathibha

Prathibha Mangedarage, ’17 (Biology; Sri Lanka)

Coming to MSU from a diverse country like Sri Lanka which is home to many religions, ethnicities and languages, meant that diversity was not something new to me. I was pleasantly surprised when I got the opportunity to meet students from all over the world here in Mankato. I came to the US hoping to get a world-class education that I need to pursue a career in the field of Biomedical Sciences. But, my experience here has been much more than just studying to obtain a degree. My college career in the US has completely changed who I am and the way I see the world. The diversity in the United States has opened doors for me to explore various cultures and has helped me become a more culturally competent individual. As an international student, I also get to represent my country and culturally contribute to the community by sharing my culture with others. It is always a pleasant experience when I get the opportunity to share my views and values. My experience in the United States has taught me the importance of understanding people’s different beliefs and being respectful of them. The relationships I have made in the US have helped me to learn about American culture, break misconceptions and stereotypes, and have a better understanding of diversity. Through my experiences abroad I am becoming a better educated and well-rounded individual. I am able to think more critically and broadly about world views that I would not have elsewhere.

Sarah

Sarah Snoussi, ’18 (Electrical Engineering; Tunisia)

Coming to the United States was a dream coming true for me. I have always dreamed about coming to the States but never thought it would happen this soon in my life. I had been desperate, separated from my family, studying at a university in my home country with different expectations. The faculty abused my energy; I was like a robot studying day and night, Monday to Saturday, no weekends or vacations, dreaming I would make it to the next year. To be blunt, my dreams and expectations about higher education had vanished into old broken walls of disappointments and my deadly routine. When I first came to the United States, I had a strange feeling that I never experienced before, an amazement that took over me. I would wake up at 6 a.m. every day because I wanted to use every second of the day to enjoy and discover every corner of this little town called Mankato. I used to walk around campus with my camera taking pictures of everything, random things. I looked for things that reminded me I wasn’t at home anymore, not in Tunisia, that I was somewhere in my dream. It was an incredible feeling to enjoy everything, every little detail. I was never sad, never annoyed, and always thankful for being here in my dream. Studying no longer became a problem for me. It was a pleasure, something I did for fun. Back home I felt like the professors were so distant and strong. I was scared to negotiate with them and felt forced to simply do what I was told. At Minnesota State Mankato, it is different. Students are the center of attention, and everything revolves around them. The question is no longer “how can we torture the students,” but rather “how can we make them have the best experience and provide them with the best education?” I know this is hard to believe for a lot of Americans. I truly appreciate being here in the United States, even as an exchange student. Living this experience has created another dream inside of me. Maybe one day, my study abroad to the United States will foster big changes in my home country. Maybe I can be the start, the spark of that big change.

To learn more about studying at Minnesota Sate as an international student, please visit our University’s International Student and Scholar Services web page.

To learn more about the Honors Program or apply, please visit our Program’s web page.

Building a Framework for Understanding Cultural Differences

by Caryn E. Lindsay

With a diverse background of experiences from around the world, Caryn has been Director of International Programs since 2005. She has worked internationally for the U.S. Information Agency and for the State Department in Washington, D.C. and New York City. One of her most valued experiences was volunteering for a year with a women’s center in Prishtina, Kosovo. Caryn has lived in Germany, Chile, and Italy and has been fortunate to visit Australia, China, Ghana, Scotland, New Zealand and many European countries. She speaks German, Spanish and Albanian and is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Minnesota.

Caryn Lindsay

In the Honors Seminar “Becoming Global Citizens,” I attempt to share with students the things I wish I had known before studying and working abroad. It would have saved me some significant stress. Like the students, I love learning from people around the world, but enthusiasm is not enough. If we engage deeply with people with backgrounds different from our own, it can often lead to miscommunication and frustration. Why are “they” always late for appointments? Why do “they” talk so loudly — are they angry? Why won’t people offer me a ride home when they know I don’t have a car?  In short, why are “they” not acting as I expect?

Using Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, we are building a framework for understanding why behaviors differ and how we might step back, take a breath, and analyze the cultural differences at play in many of our interactions. I hope that the students will find the framework to be a valuable tool as they grow and develop in their academic and professional careers.

Having formed a common basis for understanding during our first few sessions, cross-cultural groups of three students are now beginning to work on a presentation. Each group has selected one of the Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness (GLOBE) study’s regional clusters. They will be responsible for creatively conveying the cultural characteristics of their cluster to their fellow students and applying the knowledge gained in the first sessions. The final project will then be to reflect upon the challenges and successes they had working toward a common goal in cross-cultural teams. I have designed this activity to replicate the teamwork within a multicultural environment that students can expect to encounter in graduate school and in their professions. Students will have an opportunity to practice working across cultures and then reflect upon the challenges this can bring. I hope that the students will develop the habit of reflecting on their interactions as they continue to improve their cultural competence. The students are engaging and interesting. I can only hope they are half as impressed with me as I am with them!

References 

Hofstede, G.H. Culture’s Consequences: International Differences in Work – Related Values.Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1980 (revised and expanded in 2001).

House R.J. et al.(eds.), Culture, Leadership, and Organizations: The GLOBE Study of 62 Societies.Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2004.

Visiting International Student Reflection

by Ijlal (Jilly) Ahmed Niazi

This is the second installment of two blogs authored by some of our visiting international honors students. Because of their academic excellence, these students’ study abroad experiences at Minnesota State University, Mankato have been sponsored by a variety of American or international agencies. We invite a select number of them to participate in our Honors Program while they are enrolled at Minnesota State Mankato. While here, the students can enroll in honors courses and participate in any number of honors activities. Doing so is a great way to meet other Americans and to get involved in the community at a deeper level than might otherwise have been possible. In these blogs, Yusra and Jilly reflect powerfully on their experiences in and outside of the classroom. It has been a joy to have them as part of our community, even if for a short while.

-Christopher Corley, Honors Program Director

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I have found studying abroad to be one of the best ways to enhance my experience. I was pretty excited when I was selected for the cultural exchange program to spend one semester in the United States. I did not know which school I was going to attend because it was my sponsor’s decision. After a lot of waiting, I found myself here at Minnesota State University, Mankato. I was already prepared for a fun semester but another surprise was in store for me.

At the orientation, I was told that I was one of the students who had been selected to join the Honors Program during my stay. One of the courses the Program offered, Honors American Indian Leaders, was the main reason I accepted the invitation. I have always been interested in Native American history so I was excited for the opportunity to take this course through my enrollment in the Honors Program.

My semester-long experience is coming to a close, but I have really enjoyed being a part of this wonderful group. I have met a lot of new people, including my classmates in Honors American Indian Leaders, and Professor Rhonda Dass. Together we have learned so much about American Indian leadership and culture from Dr. Dass and enjoyed the unique layout of this course. We often meet outside of the classroom at various restaurants for class, and the majority of our time together is based on class discussion. The environment in the class is entirely different from any I have ever experienced in my own country, Pakistan.

By being a part of this program, I have had the opportunity to attend events that I might never get the chance to attend again. In my honors course, Dr. Dass encouraged me to attend the annual Pow-Wow held at the Land of Memories Park here in Mankato. I got a first-hand experience of Native American culture by attending the Pow-Wow that commemorated the 38 plus two Native Americans who were publicly executed during the US-Dakota War. Another cultural event I was able to attend through my honors course was American Indian Night put on by the University’s American Indian Student Association (AISA). My classmates and I also organized and hosted a dinner for the student leaders of AISA. These were wonderful opportunities to grow culturally and meet new people.

Being a part of the Honors Program has been a wonderful experience. It has changed my perspective on a lot of things. It has given me the opportunity to interact with people from a different culture and allowed me to look at the world from a different perspective. I am really lucky to have been a part of this program, and I am very thankful to MNSU and my sponsors for this opportunity. I will surely miss all of this.

Return To Pakistan

By Yusra Hayat

Yusra Hayat studied at Minnesota State last school year as a visiting international student from Pakistan. As part of her involvement in the Honors Program, she wrote a reflection for the Spring 2014 Honors Beacon newsletter. She updates us on her return to her home country as she reflects on her experience.

Yusra

I did not go to the United States to create a new world of my own. I went there to get a taste of the world there and cherish what was here in my home. I went there to not only change misinformed perspectives both cultures have of each other but also incorporate the things I truly valued in the US culture—friendships without age barriers, pervasive common courtesy, and time management—into my own home.

Now that I have come back full circle, there is a terrible uneasiness mixed with a certain degree of maturity. I know that I have to bid good-bye to every chapter as it closes in my life, but this one proved to be harder than I thought. It’s not merely the feeling of saying goodbye to America or to all the traveling that I did. It’s not the gentle snow, the absolute greenery or the overdose of MSU purple and gold. It’s the warmth of humanity and selflessness, it’s loving without falling in love. As Toni Morrison said, “it’s rising in that feeling.” It’s the fear that a “routine’’ and “the usual’’ will not hold the same meaning anymore; the fear that life does go on and nothing happens when people leave; the certainty that everyone gets so engulfed in weaving the fabric of their remaining lives that the intricacy of the initial pattern and its significance gets lost to each one of them. But most of all, it’s knowing that the next time I sit with the people I cherished in the US, we will all take the seven individual chairs instead of sitting huddled together on a dirty beige sofa. We will smile at each other remembering old jokes instead of laughing like young hysteric souls because the noise of that laughter is lost with time, and space has created new definitions of “routine” and “the usual” for each one of us.

The USA is so diverse that apart from learning cultural sensitivity, I’ve learned how to see individuals as people first and as their defined roles second. My mother was always absent from my childhood play performances and my shopping trips. She was never present at my celebrations or the various transitions in my life. I always felt that she was never there because she had other priorities. After this semester, I have allowed myself to see her actions in a new light. Earlier, I jettisoned all that was so dear to her. Now I am able to comprehend that she was not an ordinary mother and that she was working two jobs to give me a future she never had a chance to live. Most of all, I understand her love for me.

The transition back into the world I had left took its own sweet time and I let it pass with difficulty because I wanted to indulge in the pain while it mattered. I wanted to slowly open the sense of loss and mourn it while it lasted. I wanted to relive our random drives and lake plans, late night walks to get sodas and pops, our library Sundays and our genuine happiness without a care for the world because it was honest. Because it was precious. Because the people there didn’t have to. Because we weren’t friends to begin with. Because we had our own lives without each other. Because then my friends became family and a small college town became home. I put all the pictures up in my room and make it home, and then it did become that, and then life wrenched me away so quickly and suddenly that I found it hard to gel back so naturally again.

I have a beautiful family and amazing friends but then I wonder how do I gather my soul that hovers in so many places and with so many people where I enjoyed myself the most and assimilate it and hold it all together? Yes, life lacks the neat closure of a conventional story, but it isn’t even about closure anymore. It’s about not knowing how to unite your three different lives and your three different homes and your three different identities stacked away in Karachi, Lahore, and Minnesota. When they say go full circle back to your home base, where do you go?

In the Shadow of Lifjell: My Year in Bø, Norway

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Honors Student and Presidential Scholar, Ellen Ahlness is currently studying abroad in Norway through the MSU Mankato Exchange Program. She received the Lakselaget Foundation’s Scholarship, Folds of Honor Scholarship, and Sons of Norway Myrtle Beinhauer Fund. Below is an update on her travels.

I arrived in Oslo, Norway in mid-August for my one year study abroad. Coming from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, the capitol of Norway already seemed small with a population of under 600,000 people. Yet that was not yet my final stop. Immediately upon hopping off the plane, I boarded on a train for three hours south to the rural town of Bø. The town has a permanent population of about 5,000 with an additional 2,200 students coming each year to attend Høyskole i Telemark University. This was my first big adjustment—even though my hometown in Minnesota was not exceptional, it seemed particularly large compared to this farming community I suddenly found myself in, right in the shadow of the Telemark region’s largest mountain–Lifjell.

Being a small town, Bø had additional challenges I needed to face in addition to being in a different country. In Norway stores and services have much shorter hours than what I was used to in the U.S. including reduced hours on the weekends and most businesses being closed on Sundays. This includes grocery stores, and in the case of Bø, both gas stations. This gave me the largest cultural shock of my travels, the sudden “loss of convenience” that I had grown so accustomed to in the United States.

After a week of adjusting to life in Bø, I began classes. All of my courses pertained to my Scandinavian Studies major centering on regional identity, language, and Scandinavian politics. In my classes, I am expected to do independent work. This is extremely applicable to my academic career because I have always enjoyed diving deeper into subjects that interest me after covering them in class. Here, the emphasis on independent initiative helps me continue to shift my mindset to help me work effectively in a new academic environment.

My favorite assignments are ones pertaining to cultural components of environmental responsibility and appreciation which are extremely important in Norway. There is even a word that captures the Norwegian outdoor spirit—friluftsliv, literally meaning “open air living.” This describes the importance of outdoor education and recreation as a key part of the Norwegian identity and way of life. To best understand this aspect of the Norwegian culture students are encouraged to go on hikes around the neighboring mountains and terrain. During my first two months in Norway, I went on a hike each week with other students. There we would go swimming and drink from the lakes, pick blueberries and cloudberries, and cook over fires when it got cold. I have never been in a classroom experience that provided me with such an experience alongside theory.

Before coming to Norway, my fellow international students and I were warned that it could be difficult to make Norwegian friends, as the culture in Telemark is very reserved. Students are more likely to hold onto old friendships rather than reach out and make new friends. After the first few weeks, I saw how true this was. I easily made friends within the international student community through activities, meetings, and classes. Unless I was intentional, I would not meet many Norwegians outside of class. I then began working at Kroa, a student organization that hosts activity nights, concerts, and parties. Here I was able to improve my Norwegian, make more friends, and contribute to the student life in Bø.

I still have lots of time left to explore and experience Norway until I disembark June 2015. If I learn as much in the time I have left as I have learned during my first part of my stay, I know I will walk away from this experience having developed my language and academic skills, as well as having developed as a more independent, culturally competent person.

To learn more about Mankato Exchanges and the study abroad opportunities the International Programs Office organizes, visit http://www.mnsu.edu/studyabroad/exchanges.html.