“We may live domestically, but the world operates globally.” – yours truly
This quote summarizes my study aboard experience to El Salvador this summer. My Higher Education and Student Affairs graduate program at Grand Valley State University (GVSU) included the options to study abroad to El Salvador or The Dominican Republic. I chose El Salvador simply because it fit perfectly with the schedule of my summer practicum in New York later on in the summer semester. However, my first day abroad I quickly realized this decision was life changing and would forever broaden my perspective of international student affairs functions and sharpen my competencies as a practitioner. This post will provide you with insight on international student affairs functions from José Simeón Cañas Central American University (CAU) in El Salvador and the University of Wollongong (UOW) in Australia. Finally, I will end by providing tips on how to possibly secure a study abroad experience within your own student affairs graduate program.
Departmental Functions Differ Greatly Across Countries
I was able to visit CAU in El Salvador and meet many students around campus. The first fascinating component of their student affairs framework is they did not have officially organized student organizations. When I inquired the reasoning for this I was told if students want to do an activity together, they simply gather to do said activity. A sensible answer, yet I could not help but wonder how a lack of a student activities department affects, leadership development, institutionally organized events, and the presence of student affairs professionals providing service to students. The students around campus looked to be collectively enjoying themselves, which is the point of most campus activity initiatives. UOW, an Australian institution was the complete opposite, and because it attracts students from around the world, is dedicated to providing diverse, organized campus activities to its students. My current student affairs practicum is at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) which is one of the few authentic student unions remaining in the United States; this equates to the students virtually running the Student Union department, making the primary decisions, and ultimately deciding on policies and services. While this gives them great autonomy, it provides little student development opportunities, including the role advisers play, which is more administrative than developmental. These are three extreme examples of how campus activities departments can differ internationally.
Available Majors can affect Student Affairs Functions
The only majors available to CAU students are psychology, theology, religion, philosophy, and history, which ultimately dictates what students are exposed to. UOW is a public research college. RPI is private STEM institution. My home campus GVSU is a public liberal arts university. Depending on your stance as a student affairs practitioner, each of these colleges is narrow and could leave gaps in student developmental competences. For instance, CAU students have only philosophical, historic majors available to them, leaving many without great exposure to art, educational research and technology. RPI is filled 95% with engineer students focused more on research and less on social justice issues. Finally GVSU and UOW are almost complete opposites in their curriculum offerings with liberal studies and research endeavors their focus areas respectively. Many student affairs functions are aimed to be both complementary and supplemental to academic work, and if facilitated in an intentional way, student affairs departmental areas can help fill gaps to provide students holistic development. For instance, RPI does an excellent job of facilitating art-themed extracurricular activities to students while CAU students collectively report they visit libraries and technology-themed organizations in San Salvador to learn about tech that could be beneficial to their studies. Student affairs practitioners have great opportunities to assist in this area by facilitating endeavors to help students develop holistically.
Exposure to Different Nationalities is key in exposure and Resolution of Cognitive Dissonance
All students enter college with their own biases, assumptions and expectations. College is also one of the prime opportunities for students to experience cognitive dissonance, which is the phenomenon students experience when exposed to thoughts and ideas conflicting with their own. Students at CAU were surprised when I conversed with them in Spanish and was not a great dancer, like African Americans are perceived to be in pop culture. Another misconception is not all engineers are introverts, as the majority reporting as ambivert (a middle ground) in the benchmarking survey I evaluated for RPI. I even experience cognitive dissonance myself thinking I did not have an accent, yet both my Australian and El Salvadorian colleagues (including students) constantly complimented my American accent. Of course I have an accent when perceived opposite from their culture. Student Affairs practitioners have great opportunities to help students broaden their horizon and understanding, especially with global affairs. For instance, GVSU actively encourages graduate students in their College Student Affairs Leadership program to not only attend relevant conferences, but attend and present at relevant international conferences.
Studying abroad is a life changing experience and here are a few tips for possibly securing this outstanding experience for yourself if haven’t yet:
1] Simply check if your institution offers study abroad courses. Many institutions offer them in the summer and a graduate assistantship, which many student affairs graduate students have, could help offset cost significantly.
2] Inquire about interning within a campus international department. Many institutions offer practicum opportunities to take a leadership role during different study abroad opportunities. Look for surrounding or interesting colleges that may offer this if yours does not.
3] Look for international jobs for graduate students that could fit as an internship. There are many exchange programs and international universities seeking students from abroad. A bit of searching and patience could land you one of these.
I wish all the best in any international endeavors undertaken.