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Students take different approaches to experiencing life abroad

by Xakota Espinoza / Beacon Staff • October 13, 2011

, Beacon Staff/strong

For sophomore and current Kasteel Well resident Garren Orr, the decision between a night of homework or spontaneously going to a show in Amsterdam is an easy one.

But according to a recent study, for many students studying abroad, leaving their comfort zone and immersing themselves in a new culture, proves to be a difficult task.

A University of California-Santa Barbara researcher found one group of students studying abroad spent an average 4.5 hours per day online with 83 percent of their contacts consisting of other Americans, according to The Boston Globe.

With roughly 300,000 American college students studying abroad, the inclination to remain in an “American bubble” is becoming increasingly common, the article said.

Orr, however, sees his semester at Kasteel Well, Emerson’s primary study abroad program at a castle in the Netherlands, as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“All I want to do is live the way people live here,” the marketing communication major said. “I tell myself, ‘don’t say no to anything.’”

As the Nov. 1 deadline to apply for the Kasteel Well program approaches, eager students picturing their future days in a Dutch fortress are selected through a lottery, with the remaining students placed on a waitlist for either the fall or spring semesters.

While Orr is determined to make the most out of his European adventure, David Griffin, director of international study and external programs, said that culture shock is one of the most difficult things for students studying abroad to deal with and may prevent students from exploring the country they’re living in.

“Some people handle it very well; for others, it’s more of a struggle,” said Griffin. “I usually tell students it’s natural to be anxious and scared, but the more comfortable you are with the culture, the more you want to try and disassociate yourself with home.”

Junior Danielle Poland, who went to Kasteel Well — colloquially known as “The Castle” — said that while she only spoke with her family a handful of times throughout the semester, there were a number of students who remained very fastened to life back home.

“I didn’t put too much effort into trying to stay connected,” the visual and media arts major said. “I wanted to be able to enjoy my time abroad and embrace an entirely new group of people.”

However, for some students, experiencing life abroad has less to do with the amount of contact back home, but rather the program as a whole.

For senior Paige Wyman, living in a castle with fellow Emerson students wasn’t the international experience she was looking for. Rather, Wyman decided she would prefer to experience life in a large city, surrounded by college students from all over the continent.

Instead of heading to the Netherlands, Wyman took a leave of absence from Emerson and enrolled in an external program through Arcadia University, where she and a friend were able to attend Queen Mary University of London during the spring of their sophomore year.

Wyman said that upon arriving, she and the other Arcadia students had an initial orientation, where they visited museums, studied the British government, and acquainted themselves with the culture. After that, students split up into their respective schools.

Wyman, who stayed in a flat with eight other students, said that she got to know the culture better by living with girls from England and Paris.

“We were just like any students from the [United Kingdom]. That’s what I liked about it, and why I picked it over the castle,” the marketing communication major said. “I can see how it would be fun to go with all of your friends and get close with that castle crew, but it was also really nice getting to know people from across the world.”

According to Griffin, Kasteel Well differs greatly from standard study abroad programs in the sense that it is extremely travel oriented, as most students visit over 10 countries throughout the semester. Kasteel Well is also Emerson’s sole semester-long external program in Europe, with the Los Angeles and Washington D.C. programs offering similar experiences, but in the comfort of the United States.

“I don’t want to say that one is better than the other; they’re very different,” said Griffin. “The castle is unique, it gives you a taste of a lot of different cultures, but it’s not the best way to get an in-depth look at one particular culture.”

Despite beliefs that going to the castle deprives students from truly immersing themselves in a particular city, Orr believes that individual experiences are up to the students.

“If I was just required to stay here every weekend, it wouldn’t be nearly as good,” he said. “The first weekend here the administrators took all of the students to Amsterdam. The weekend after that, I went to Munich. People are getting really into traveling.”

Orr also said that having a faculty and staff comprised solely of Europeans makes the experience more authentic. He said that while it would be exciting to meet students from all over the world, it’s interacting with the locals that he finds to be the most rewarding when it comes to leaving his comfort zone.

“Go to a random place and meet random people who aren’t studying the same thing you are, aren’t the same age, and don’t even speak your language. To find those types of people on your own gives it even more of an impact because it’s spontaneous and not dictated by school,” he said. “Just try to do everything. I’m not playing it safe at all, and I would recommend that to others too.”