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I recently spoke to the members of the International Women Associates at Brandon Hall School in Atlanta. The workshop was enlightening for many reasons. First, it was rare to be gathered together with such an amazing group of accomplished and globally minded people. Second, one interactive activity I planned reminded me of how transformative global education can be for the individual who experiences a culturally complex event or encounter.
The activity came at about one-third of the way into my presentation entitled “Global Education as a Transformative Experience” when I asked the participants to recall and share a moment when they experienced either culture shock or cultural transformation. At this point, it was essential to establish meaning for the aforementioned terms. I fully understand that the well-researched concept of culture shock cannot be oversimplified. It does, after all, have a series of stages through which one must progress. The definition, however, for activity sake distilled down culture shock to a pithy descriptor as an instance, while living, studying, working, or traveling abroad, in which one experiences a complete loss for what to do or how to react to a situation. Conversely, I defined a transformative moment as occurring when the actual trajectory of one’s life shifts as the result of a cultural encounter or experience.
I asked each participant to share either type of life event (culture shock or transformation) to someone at their table. After about ten minutes had passed, it was time to report back to the group. This was one of those moments in a presenter’s life when one must go “off script” because of a poignant experience. I listened intently as many of the participants recounted short-lived events that had happened 20, 30, 40 years in the past. Their stories, however, were so compelling, clear, and at times emotional that one could easily understand the enduring power of a cultural experience. The other key point here is that for almost all of these participants, there was no one at their side at that past moment in time who served as a navigator to help them process and make sense of something so viscerally complicated and multi-layered.
As teachers, when we facilitate or design global education experiences, we need to fully understand the obligation we have to our students. We must be guides and facilitators whose main duty is to help students process those moments of culture shock so that the learning and understanding eventually emerges from the situation. One very sad byproduct of culture shock in an educational context is that a student risks getting stuck in his or her initial reaction, interpretation, or impression of an event. The role of the teacher is perhaps more critical here than at any other moment. Let’s recognize our obligation to our students and to the larger world beyond our own schools and classrooms.