Language TAs import global flair to campus community

Language teaching assistants were recruited to the College from places as diverse as Russia, Austria, Spain, France and Egypt.

For the language teaching associates (TAs) at the College, a year here is much like a year abroad for any of us – except for the minor detail of having to actually do work. Many of them are still university students or are newly graduated and in pursuit of a job and an adventure. However, they have faced some unexpected challenges.

I’m not talking about culture shock or getting used to the language – most of the College’s TAs studied English in college, after all. No, one of the foremost challenges for some of the TAs came in a decidedly more pungent form.

“We have a pet in our house where we live,” said Yulia Krivchenkova, a Russian language TA originally from Moscow, Russia. “A skunk in the basement.” Facilities was long ago informed about the situation, but when they came to look, the skunk was nowhere to be seen. They did provide air freshener, though.

“I’m the only one that saw the skunk,” said Sabrina Eberhaut, a German language TA from Austria. “It was staring at me, and I started to scream and ran up the stairs. This was the biggest mistake because the skunk sprayed.” The TAs rooming with the skunk say that people start talking about skunks wherever they go because the smell has seeped into their clothing.

Like the many other aspects of moving to a new country, the TAs have taken this situation in stride. When I asked how the adjustment to living here had been, most of them laughed and shrugged.

“I didn’t expect something precise. I didn’t want to expect something and be disappointed; I just wanted to discover the place and see,” said Valentine Boivin, a French language TA from Versailles, France. “Because to me this discovery is always a kind of amazement – discovering people, discovering a country, discovering culture – it’s always an amazement.”

Some of the TAs had been tipped off on what to expect. “I had friends who had been to the U.S. before and said, ‘You will have a culture shock at the very beginning.’ And I had this thing in my mind, and I was kind of looking for it on purpose, like where is it?” Krivchenkova said.

Even if they manage to adapt easily, many back home seem to expect some sort of transformation. “[Friends] expect you to be changed, they expect you to tell every tiny detail,” said Nourhan Nohal, an Arabic language TA from Cairo, Egypt.

When their friends ask what America is like, it’s not easy to explain, but not necessarily because the experience is totally transformative. “You go, like, ‘It’s fine,’” said Rebecca Gebhard, a German language TA from rural Bavaria, Germany. “You either say it’s good, or you talk for five hours.” As a result, she tends to talk pretty generally about her life here with friends from home, focusing instead on catching up on what she’s missing there.

One thing that has, it seems, taken some getting used to is Americans’ friendliness – and what it actually means.

“Another thing that surprised me is people’s kindness and willingness to help you, and to say hi on the street. It’s not only in Williamstown; it’s anywhere, Florida, California,” Krivchenkova said.

“Here, if you’re looking kind of lost, or looking for something, people will be like, ‘Do you need any help?’” Elena Renedo, a Spanish language TA from Madrid, Spain, said. “If you get somebody on the street [in Madrid] that’s trying to help you or be nice or whatever, first you think they are going to rob you.”

Gebhard said her home region is not so different in terms of trust and helpfulness but explained why this friendliness is a little puzzling, even for her. “There is a stereotype that Americans are hypocritical,” she said. “And I think the reason is that the cultural thing in America is that, from the beginning, you’re friendly. You’re very friendly. And that’s just the culture. That’s seen as polite. That just doesn’t mean that the person is your best friend.”

The TAs’ impressions of America are not limited to Williamstown; most have taken weekend trips throughout New England’s nearby cities, while others have ventured further afield, including to the West Coast and Florida. The amount of traveling they do varies, of course: Like the student body itself, the TAs seem to be conflicted in how they feel about the quiet and calmness of small-town Williamstown.

Gebhard and Sébastien Thibault – a French language TA originally from Normandie, France – are both from rural areas, so Williamstown is much like home. For others, though, who come from some of the biggest cities in the world – Cairo, Moscow, Madrid – small-town life is charming, but they need a break every now and again.

With the year drawing to a close, however, most of the group isn’t in a hurry to leave Williamstown for good. Many are returning to their home countries to teach English, a couple are returning to school and a few others are hoping to find jobs in the U.S. in order to extend their stay.

For some, this experience has been a rewarding one, but it will make the return all the more satisfying.

“I learned to love it here and appreciate everything, and learn more about here,” Eberhaut said. “But the more I love it here, and the more I love other cultures, the more I also appreciate my country, my culture. I actually became really patriotic here in teaching about Austria.”

At the same time, many hope to return stateside, or at the very least to live abroad again.

Thibault, for one, likes being out of his comfort zone. “I like feeling like a stranger, like a foreigner, in an environment in which you don’t belong,” he said. “In France, I always feel like I am stuck in this country that I know, but when I am abroad, even if I don’t like everything about the country, I like the fact that I don’t belong to it, that here, I’m part of this.”