The Value of Learning Culture

EagerKGradThere are many advantages to participating in a study abroad program: including the ability to see and try new things, taste new foods, and to view our own culture through a new lens. In addition, studying abroad helps give focus, and creates a sense of self-awareness and an increased maturity. This is my story, through my lens.

Five years ago, approximately 290,000 students from across the U.S. participated in a study abroad program somewhere. Last academic year, that number jumped to 325,000 students. The trend in study abroad education is increasing at a remarkable rate. But the question that lingers in the back of my mind is why? What makes study abroad worth it? I have no doubt that study abroad is fun—both because I have the firsthand experience, and as Jacksonville University junior Michael Fisher puts it, “The best part of my education was studying abroad.” Having fun, though, isn’t enough. There must be a value to educating ourselves through study abroad for the concept to be worth anything.

SteveandDad-editedLife for the Eager family has not always been fun, or easy. I grew up in a rough neighborhood south of downtown Boston. My fondest memories, perhaps because they were the only memories I had at the time, were of my brother and mother walking with me to the grocery store. We were walking because we didn’t have a car. We didn’t even have a home.LittleEager We lived out of a two-single bed-motel room at the time. In the 80’s, this seemed hard. Today, this is considered unacceptable by modern standards—after all, I was three years old and essentially homeless. This seemingly grating lifestyle came as a result of my father’s passing.

My mother did eventually remarry, and things did begin to get better. But the stress that this sort of lifestyle puts on a young child, such as myself, has lasting effects. My learning ability was altered, and my maturity level needed improvement as well. 416642_3481393307102_442711919_oThis lent me to join the Army as a young 22-year-old. I would have joined much sooner but passing the ASVAB exam took a few attempts—9 to be exact.

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“Eager!,” Drill Sgt. Hall says in his loud stern voice, “Your orders are in, you’re headed to South Korea.” The day had arrived, one I still remember fondly today. Though at this point I do not know what to expect, I am confident that having completed my initial Army training, I am ready for the next challenge that lies ahead. What excites me most is that I am about to embark on the journey that many in my family have done before me.

Three weeks into my stay in S. Korea, and I am still at a loss for words. The sights are different. The sounds are different. The smells are different. The language is different, and quite frankly, the people are different. I am lost in the large metropolitan city of Seoul because the words that I am used to seeing on signs are replaced with strange phonics symbols that give direction to the local population. Perhaps the strangest of all are the eating establishments. Yes, KFC is on every street corner in Seoul. But I’ll be honest, I have never seen mashed potatoes and gravy replaced by plain white rice in a KFC in the U.S.A. There’s a term that comes to mind when thinking back upon my feelings while I was in this new land: I am truly and utterly in full force culture shock!

My time is South Korea is short and sweet; one year is my total time spent in country. My journey traveling the world doesn’t stop here, though. Germany, The United Kingdom, Japan, Ireland, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, and Afghanistan are just some of the countries my 11-year Army career takes me. All countries are different, but they all have culture shock in common. Every time i’m shocked, new lessons are sure to be learned.

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Image-3.pngThe college life can also be stressful at times. Add the fact that Im raising four enterprising daughters who constantly seek to challenge my mental fortitude, it can arguably be said that I have my work cut out for me. It should come as no surprise, then, that when I spoke with my wife, Cassandra, one January day and informed her that I would be headed to Italy for three weeks in May, her eyebrows raised, and the quick “uh huh” meant anything but “no problem, good luck.” Though I must admit, even with all ladies, I’m still a guy and I took the quick “uh huh” as a “go for it!” response. I was wrong.

March is here, and it’s time to attend the first of several meetings for study abroad. “I am going to be late coming home this evening,” I say to my wife. “I have a study abroad meeting.” “A study abroad meeting!” Cassandra says in return. “Yes, we talked about this, remember?” “I remember you fantasizing about going to Italy a few weeks ago,” Cassandra’s immediate fluttered response towards my obvious excitement of this meeting. “So, when do we leave?” Cassandra asked.  “We don’t,” I thought to myself—though at this point I knew better than to actually mutter the words aloud.

The meeting went off without a hitch. I received, and filled out, the required documentation for the trip, applied for and received my passport, and paid the required deposit to hold my spot. Ready I was, to travel to Europe the first week of May. All that is left to do is to get my wife on board.

Through much anxiety and a fair amount of patients Cassandra did come to terms with the usefulness of the trip. The main realization is the value that such a trip holds. As pointed out already, the number of students that participate in study abroad is on the rise. Most older students, however, often miss out on this chance of a lifetime. Military students often have a tough time selling the trip to the VA, and nontraditional adult students often have conflicting work schedules. My desire for studying abroad are the lessons I can learn and pass on to my own children. I must admit, I have many experiences under my belt that include international travel, but to teach my own children the appreciation of different cultures is invaluable.

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IMG_0774There isn’t much that jumps out upon first arriving in the big city of Rome—at least from my initial perception. The old saying “don’t judge a book by its cover” is often overlooked by me. I can tell very early on whether or not I want to invest my time and energy in that “book.” The scenery wasn’t much better—or in fact, worse—when I arrived in Naples as I headed down towards my final destination of Sorrento. The city is large, busy, and somewhat dirty. In comparing the two with a major U.S. city, I consider New York City to be comparable in both appearance and sterility. After several airplanes, trains, and van rides, however, I arrive in Sorrento and the Sant’ Anna Institute. The school is situated on a rock ledge overlooking the Marina Grande. Fixed Marina GrandeThe warmth and beauty are absolutely breathtaking. The countryside that surrounds the town gives the true feel of what Italy is all about—the Italy we read about in travel books, see pictures of, and long to visit. The school gives the feel of a five-star hotel. This is my home for three weeks. Studying by day and admiring the scenery by night, is the lifestyle I was about to live.

“We opened our school so that students could come to learn about our culture, and appreciate the Italian way of life,” Serena Vacca said. Vacca is a seasoned employee of the Sant’ Anna Institute in Sorrento Italy. “They also learn how to live on their own in a place  far away from home.”

lunchUpon getting settled in, we had a welcoming meal to which we were able to experience first-hand the food culture in Italy. We enjoyed the immediate hospitality and were ready to capture the essence of Italy through academic study.

Study abroad offers numerous opportunities for growth. The personal satisfaction I felt through learning cultural differences, the chance for a more independent study in a faraway land, and the deep study of history, culture, and languages are some of the great privileges I have experienced while studying in another country.

I have always experienced culture and travel through the lens of an Army soldier. For example, when I traveled to Afghanistan I quickly emerged myself into a culture that I knew nothing about but was required to carry myself with a driving force of superiority over all other local nationals. The locals are not people. They are potential enemies—no matter who they are, or what region they are from. No amount of cultural training can ever change this soldiers’ mentality. This is simply a survival skill embedded in soldiers who are trained to do unthinkable things if duty calls for it.

Communicating with, and emerging myself into the Italian culture, I was able to capture a sensitivity towards my fellow Italian counterparts. I learned that the Italian nationals are just as curious about my culture as I am of theirs. Some local restaurants even attempt to “Americanize” their establishments as to bring comfort to American travelers. Seeing these things and making an effort to relate to the Italians helped me grow as a person. I have an understanding of a world outside of my own—this time from my personal perspective.

College students are like young service members in several ways. When a studentIMG_0762 graduates high school and takes that first initial step into society, they are often unequipped to deal with society on their own. Likewise, when a young person joins the military they are young, impressionable, and eager to learn how to be on their own. It is true that in our military young soldiers and sailors are taught how to be confident and independent through a strict training regiment. The true value of lessons learned only comes with experience; experiences that comes from actually doing something and gaining understanding. This is a hard lesson to learn. A city kid from Boston—and poor most of my life—my confidence has always been lacking. Though joining the Army wasn’t an immediate fix and boost in confidence, the military did give me the ability, and drive, to learn how to take responsibility for my own self-development—a development that I choose to further even today.

Today’s students come from all walks of life, and varying levels of maturity. I began life with a rocky start that requires self-motivation, dedication, and perseverance to get to where I am today. The journey has been long and has not easy. I have many experiences that helped develop me along the way. One of my most powerful lessons were learned from traveling to foreign lands. The majority of my travels have been mission-based, yet the values and appreciation I have learned come from a different point of view. I have learned and experienced life through the eyes of another culture.

Jacksonville University has a history of being culturally diverse. Walking around campus on any given day makes this obvious. Likewise, JU offers several options for students to study abroad—both faculty-led programs, and tradition study abroad programs. JU gets it.

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I’ll end with this final thought:

Sassy is the name of the horse that I care for. She is a 16.2 hands warmblood mare who lives up to her name in every sense of the word. She is nasty—and not even when in heat; she’s over that part of her life—she is mean to the core. Though mean, she and I get it. She and I have an understanding. It wasn’t always this way, though, it took work. Three months prior to this January day, I was merely a rider taking lessons. Today, all that changed. Today. I became employed. Seeing that it is going to be a mere twenty-degree night, the horses need to have a blanket put on. I hear the creaking sound that is made every time Sassy’s barn door is opened. I look over and see Gwen, a horse boarder, and part-time employee, heading in for the attempt. The attempt is failed, however, as Sassy in her usual self-turns quickly only to show her hinny to the door—a show of force attempt as to indicate a kick is coming next. Frustrated, Gwen closes the door thus no longer interested in securing warmth for this twelve-hundred-pound beast. Though I think, she still needs her blanket. As I approach the barn stall, Sassy turns with interest. As I creak open the door, she greets me with the utter sign of enlightenment. I secure her holster and ensure that she has every bit of warmth to deal with the night’s frigid temperatures. Little did I know, the owner of the barn, Alice, was looking on. “Do you want a job?” says Alice. “Yes, of course!” I said trying to hold my ecstatic enthusiasm.

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Photo courtesy of Savannah Dobbs

What began as a job landed itself a safe place that I would spend the next four years of my life. I was a mere fourteen-year-old teenager when I was introduced to horses, but it is something that is very dear and near to my life. The barn was my escape. The barn offered me protection from a broken home, from the difficulties I encountered in school, and from the social oppression unpopular children experience in school. As I grew up, I fell away from horses. Life got in the way as it tends to do. I joined the Army, had a family of my own, and what was once a dream of living the life of a true equestrian became something of the past. Until Italy ad May nineteenth, two-thousand and eighteen when I sat in the saddle, on a horse, for the first time in nearly fifteen years. It felt good. If I were asked what the greatest memory I had while studying abroad was, I would have to say that the ride up Mt. Vesuvius is it. Not only did my study abroad trip give me a new-found appreciation for cultural differences, it reawakened a passion that I have had since childhood.

The best universities understand the value of a complete education, including a culturally diverse individual. I am happy with my choice to study abroad. Not only did my knowledge and appreciation for Italian culture improve, but I was able to take time out for myself—on a personal level—and rekindle the burning flame that has dimmed tremendously over the years.

I have traveled the world, and I brought with me many life experiences some traditional students do not have. However, the value of traveling to learn and take a serious look into the culture of a foreign nation is a lesson that must be learned in person. Embrace it. Experience it. Study abroad and you too will be able to experience Italy up close and personal.

 

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