Culture shock and awe

In Features /

Despite having the appearance of a glorified vacation, international academic exchanges are serious learning experiences — especially outside the classroom. Imran Khan reports

It’s unavoidable — the sprinkling of Facebook statuses jabbing at you daily. Quick Twitter updates conjure up a level of jealousy you didn’t know social media could generate. Pictures brightly lit, not by a camera flash, but a warm sunrise.

The people in the picture laugh at you, unapologetically, in their summer attire. You find yourself logging in obsessively to make comments during class, trying to escape your mundane routine as your professor explains another assignment breakdown.

You start to question if something so alluring is actually legitimate. Is she really earning a credit while tanning on a beach? Is he hopping around Europe on the weekends, sightseeing between midterms? As happy as you are for your friends and peers, a sharp unpleasant voice in the dark realms of your subconscious drills a strong reminder — this could be you. You could have been this happy. From Copenhagen Business School to Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Ryerson students are traversing the world.

However, there’s more to student exchanges than just relaxing and adventures. Students who opt to take a semester abroad go through a long process — from the application to finding a place to live while you’re there, to adjusting to the sometimes vastly different culture. Ryerson will take care of getting you enrolled in the school, but the rest is up to you.

As the winter exchange semester gets into full swing, many students are starting to feel the shock of a completely new place.

“I am getting a lot of emails from students saying they are loving the place right now,” says Kristy Holzworth, international programs coordinator for the Ted Rogers School of Management (TRSM). “But culture shock goes through stages.”

Four stages, in fact. Not all travellers will experience every stage, but most experience some of them.

Stage One: Honeymoon

The first is the honeymoon phase, which many Ryerson exchange students might be in right now. In this phase, one romanticizes every aspect of a new culture to the highest extent. Jessica Chiu, a third-year human resources student, says all the planning in the world can’t prepare you for the real thing.

“You have it all in your head, but it’s a different story once you’re there,” says Chiu. “It’s always going to be a shock once you land no matter how much you plan it out.”

Chiu, who returned from France’s École des Practiciens du Commerce International in January, made an effort to put herself out in the open to have a strong network of friends to help her four-month experience go as smoothly as possible.

Ellia Tilley-Pahad, a fourthyear global management student, just started a semester at the University of Zaragoza in Zaragoza, Spain. He’s still in the early days, finding an affordable place near campus and taking Spanish classes on the side to brush up on the local lingo. He’s already found much to love about Zaragoza.

“The great thing about this city is that it’s so small that in 30 minutes you can walk through all the downtown and be in the outskirts of the city,” wrote Pahad in an email to friends and family. “Also, the food is *SO* good here. There are all these tapas bars, which serve little dishes of food and also beer.”

Joining Pahad in the honeymoon phase is third-year journalism student Simone Lai, who just started her semester at the Danish School of Media and Journalism (Danmarks Medie- og Journalisthøjskole). She has immediately taken to Denmark’s culture of healthy eating and its new fat tax — Denmark introduced the world’s first fat tax late last year, applying a surcharge to foods with more than 2.3 per cent saturated fat to combat obesity and heart disease.

“I’ve always wanted to start eating healthier, organic, and all that,” says Lai. “Denmark is a fabulous place to develop a healthy lifestyle.”

This initial infatuation with new cultures is probably why more and more students are going on exchanges every year. “Ever since studying Spanish in high school, it has always been my dream to study abroad for one semester in university,” says Pahad.

Because of this pull, Holzworth has her hands full at the moment interviewing eight students every day for fall and winter exchange opportunities. She is scheduled to interview 115 students by March 2. On top of that, she stays glued to her computer to catch new submissions and deal with TRSM’s 39 international partners.

“My whole life is this,” says Holzworth laughing as she points to her computer screen. “I try to keep it all down and organized.”

Stage Two: Negotiation

The second phase of a culture shock is negotiation, which happens when the individual is settled down and a rift between old norms and new cultural standards may cause anxiety. The individual may feel homesick or frustrated due to language barriers or accessibility to things often taken advantage of back home.

For example, Pahad expressed concern over his mediocre Spanish in his correspondence home, and also noted that a party he went to was chock-full of communists — which is probably a bit of an uncomfortable situation to someone currently enthralled by Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. He says he remembered his manners and refrained from discussing politics, so he survived.

Felix Nolte, a second-year masters student in electrical engineering, came from Germany for an exchange at Ryerson. He arrived during a heat wave last summer, and spent several days living out of his suitcase at a hostel.

After he moved into Neill- Wycik and got on his feet, he was shocked at how Ryerson’s education system was structured.

“In Germany we have six to eight classes, but not as many extensive assignments,” Nolte says. “We only get a final exam in Germany.”

Having his laptop and several chat windows open talking to friends from home, Nolte tells them he is still getting used to the food and culture in Canada. He is also still in awe of the cultural integration of his new city.

“I couldn’t imagine this when I was back in Germany, that there’s so many communities in Toronto,” says Nolte, though it’s not a bad thing. “All my friends want to come visit me.”

Over in Europe, Lai and Pahad are taking advantage of the different circumstances.

“A Heineken beer in Zaragoza is 1 Euro, that’s $1.35 Canadian,” says Pahad. “I brought 70 Euros to go out, and some change, and realized after the night I still had the 70 Euros in my jacket pocket.”

The European economic crisis has hit country where unemployment has reached a record 22.9 per cent, unemployment amongst youths aged 16 to 20 has reached 51.4 per cent. But despite the gloomy forecast for the Spanish, exchange students like Pahad have been able to make the most of the situation.

“I’ve budgeted for 1,500 Euros a month. My rent is 300 Euros, which includes very fast internet,” says Pahad. “So far the cost of living has been very affordable.” Still, Lai says sometimes things don’t go well with the locals because of the difference in language and culture, which can make things awkward.

“I can say that some jokes haven’t gone according to plan,” says Lai. “Things get lost in translation, [but] I suppose it’s funnier when you try to explain it and it turns out not being that funny.”

Stage Three: Adjustment

The third stage is adjustment. This is when the traveller becomes comfortable in the new surroundings and accustomed to new routines.

Pahad and Lai might not be there quite yet, but it’s fair to say that Chiu experienced a piece of it during her time in France. “Europe is a completely different world. The streets are cobblestone, the architecture is different,” says Chiu. “The best thing to do is get lost on purpose and wander around and absorb as much of the culture [as possible].”

She says she felt at ease in her studies and extracurricular activities because of the cultural customs and atmosphere. “The last call in Toronto is two in the morning … there is no last call in Europe,” says Chiu. “For us, the party starts and ends at a club, but in Europe life is a party — they’re just more laid-back.”

Jill Careless, community liaison and experiential learning officer at Ryerson, says this is why exchanges are so valuable.

“The students develop not only a global perspective but [also] personal growth,” says Careless. “Living in a new cultural context and studying in a context that often is quite different.”

Careless, who has spent over six years expanding the program and helping students choose their institutions abroad, says becoming too content with your surroundings can hinder learning.

“You see from where you stand. Living here in Toronto we [only] see the context we live in,” she says.

“But we have to remember that where we stand can be a limit to what we see, and sometimes the opportunity to stand outside can change a perspective.”

Stage Four: Mastery

The fourth phase of culture shock, cultural mastery, might not be attainable in a one-or-two semester exchange. But just because a student didn’t become completely bicultural doesn’t mean they didn’t learn anything.

So if the constant reminder of friends studying abroad on all your social media outlets is getting you down, remember that it’s easy to apply, but it’s not just a vacation. As Chiu can attest, the experience can change who you are.

“There is a French saying ‘joie de vivre,’ which literally translates into ‘the joy of life,’ says Chiu. “That exactly describes my whole exchange.

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