Seniors cope with culture shock after study away

Last year, in airports all around the nation, scores of Williams juniors – eyes boldly turned toward distant lands – bid farewell to family, friends, McDonald’s fries, baseball, chewing gum, decent turkey sandwiches and amber waves of grain before embarking on their Junior-Year-Abroad (JYA).

Though I didn’t shed a tear then, I will shed one now in loving memory of the young boy who arrived at JFK International clutching a tattered Yankees cap in one hand and a cassette of Don McClean’s “American Pie” in the other. Nine months later, that same boy walked back into that terminal a man. Clad now in skintight black jeans, his hair gelled back, he had undergone a transformation, and his entire view of the world had changed along with his wardrobe. He could no longer see things the same way after having immersed himself in a foreign land for an entire year. Though that could have been due to his viewing the world from behind two blue-tinted saucers, shades more akin to windshields than sunglasses – a hip little number that he had picked up in Milan for 75 euros.

Now that he is back in sleepy little Williamstown, he can’t help but feel that the weather’s somehow gotten crummier, the wine cheaper and the students more narrow-minded. The students of sleepy little Williamstown, for their part, can’t help but feel that their former friend’s become a complete ass. Is this a story destined to end in heartbreak, or is there some hope that returning JYAs and Williamstown can reconcile their differences?

In truth, returning JYAs rarely undergo such a dramatic transformation during their time abroad. Often, the only problem they have readjusting is distinguishing between quarters and nickels, or remembering that we have toilet paper in the States and that we actually use it. For some of the more adventerous JYAs, however, the very sound of English may take some getting used to.

Nick Goodbody ’03, who studied in Mexico, is one such student. He spent part of his year polishing up his Spanish in a language school before moving to the Universidad Veracruzana, where he took college-level courses taught entirely in Spanish. Strangely enough, though, Goodbody claimed that his biggest shock in returning to the States was not switching languages, but living with air conditioning: “I thought I might die of pneumonia before I got used to AC again.” Speculating on air conditioning’s noticeable absence south of the border, Goodbody said, “Mexicans seem to think that any sudden, cold breeze might give you liver disease, so I hadn’t seen or felt AC for 11 months.”

Students who went on programs with less traditional classes may have an even harder time adjusting to life back at Williams.Chris Sommerfeld ’03, for example, studied in Ghana for the spring in a program that stressed experiential learning. Instead of sitting in a classroom, Sommerfeld traveled among the nation’s major regions in what he called a kind of “four-month field trip.” For his month-long independent project he worked along side Ghanian fishermen on the nation’s coast. His schedule consisted of getting up at five in the morning, setting out onto the ocean with the other fishermen in open, keelless canoes at sunrise and being seasick all day. “They were the toughest men I have ever met – they drank sea water for God’s sakes!” Sommerfeld exclaimed.

It is easy to understand how someone like Sommerfeld might have a difficult time adjusting to life back in the States after working as a Ghanian fishermen, but even students who went on more traditional programs to Western nations returned to the US somewhat changed. Katy Austell ’03 gained a new perspective on America during her year in Paris on the Hamilton College program. As the only American student in her American literature class at the Sorbonne, she often found herself defending American culture and policy, even aspects of them that she in reality considers distasteful: “I couldn’t let a foreigner think poorly of the States.”

It got to the point, Austell said, that she became nearly obsessed with trying to define an American identity. “My host family and I would spend hours discussing the cultural and political differences between our two countries,” she said. “I felt it was my duty to change the French people’s views about Americans – though they’re definitely not as anti-American as the general American public thinks. Sometimes that involved me agreeing with them about some of America’s faults, and other times, I found myself in huge debates with my host family, defending anything I could about our culture.” Assessing and defending the U.S. in this manner, Austell could not help starting to see America as the French do. “All of a sudden our country seemed a lot more conservative than ever before.” This realization, she said, grew stronger in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

Margaret Swanson ’03 expressed sentiments similar to Austell’s. Spending a year in Prague forced her, like Austell, to abandon a strictly Ameri-centric viewpoint for a more international one – though, she said it’s unclear how permanent the change is, “I don’t feel as in touch with world events here as I did there,” Swanson said. ” I liked how it felt normal to be thinking on a more global scale, whereas now I’ve pretty much reverted to a much smaller view.”

For these students, as for most returning JYAs, their time spent overseas has only broadened their world views. They have come back to the Williams community with new experiences and lessons to share. And while they may have purchased one or two pairs of 75 euro Italian sunglasses, in their heart of hearts they know they’ll be back in Oakleys by the end of the month.

Oh, and while I’m on the topic of JYA culture shock, I should probably also mention that underage returnees suffer terribly upon realizing that they still can’t legally drink in the States.