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Built for a Time Like this


We are being asked to live with unknown cultural elements and we are uncertain as to how some things will play out. We find some things we have seen this week to be unbelievable. Some of us are homesick, others of us feel exhausted, curious, disillusioned, and engaged all at once. It’s hard sometimes for me to articulate the deep longings that come out as emotional overload and my guess is that I am not alone.

Those of us in international education or those of us who have studied abroad or those of us who have international partners as part of our day to day work are built for a time like this. How do I know?

Cultural Disorientation

We tell students prior to study abroad and we teach workers prior to their international work that there will be times when they will feel completely disoriented. Their equilibrium will be off. A craving for something familiar will suddenly appear amidst a wave of unsettling changes and that’s something to go through moreso than to go around. We can adapt. We can learn. We can listen. We can engage. We can learn to do these things because it makes us and the world better.

Celebrate Diversity

Remember how you had certain stereotypes and labels in your mind before you traveled to a certain place. Remember what happened when you sat down, in humility, and listened and loved and cared for someone else’s point of view. You didn’t agree, you may not have even fully understood them, but you tried to learn because it expanded your humanity and connected you to more than what you previously thought possible. Your paradigms were messed up and rearranged and tossed around and your mind and heart grew wider and deeper. And you started to grow wise in your convictions and you started to change your mind about a few things. You refused to verbally litter and instead you tried to celebrate diversity. That is a good thing.

Close Distances

As we draw nearer to those we are seeking to understand, we start to close distances without minimizing distinction or cheapening disagreement or belittling differences. To close a distance may make the world more robust and it may seem smaller, but we will also suddenly be unable to return to a world that is activist in t-shirt only or one that is dehumanizing in its language. We cannot go backwards because we have drawn close enough to see that our common humanity is indeed more risky and more beautiful than we dared imagine. We can’t turn around because we’ve gone too far on the journey with people we have grown to love along the way. We can move closer to one another and that’s a good thing.

I have been very fortunate to be linked to friends and colleagues who do good work all over the planet. I currently work in a field that seeks to prepare students to navigate cultural change and to listen and love and learn. And today, as I drink my morning coffee and read poems that talk of steadfast love and listen to songs that speak of our need for mercy, I am reminded that the skills we are asking students to develop within study abroad—the skills we ask co-workers to exercise on their travel—are built for a time like this.  
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As a University director of study abroad in Central Texas, ideas and stories matter. These reflections are for pilgrims making progress.