Students of color share stories from study abroad
Back from a semester abroad, Daria Fogan ’17, Ashley Simmons ’17 and Oyemen Ehikhamhen ’17 discussed the observations they made about race and identity as Black women in new cultural landscapes in a talk on Friday.
The three students brought to life the reality and challenges of studying abroad, beginning with acclimating to a new country. “It’s not like when you’re going abroad you’re going to ascend to heaven. It’s still the world; there’s still things that stress you out — there’s homework to do, and you still have to deal with your body and mind regularly,” said Simmons. “The real world stays with you, even though you’re in a place that looks like paradise.”
Simmons, a double major in English and Creative Writing, said she fulfilled her childhood dreams of travelling to Spain like the Cheetah Girls while also studying a language she loved during her abroad in Granada, Spain.
“I never liked the term ‘culture shock,’ so experiencing culture shock was not a thing for me because I was raised to be very open minded,” said Simmons. “I think culture shock is a thing people experience when they are completely oblivious to the fact that other cultures exist, so why are you shocked when other cultures are different than yours?”
Ehikhamhen, a double major in Business and Health: Science, Society and Policy, studied abroad in Shanghai, China, a decision she made after studying the Chinese language and culture throughout grade school.
On the subject of culture shock, “I think it’s really important to have cultural sensitivity, and that’s actually one of the key things that my director actually talked to us about the first time that we went there,” said Ehikhamhen. She added that her program director instructed her to use the DIE method whenever she encountered something she wouldn’t normally find in the United States: describe what happened, interpret how it fits into it fits into her own society and evaluate the system and the event that happened.
“One of the experiences I had was that a lot of people looked at me because obviously I’m not the average person [in Shanghai],” she added. “I’m a different skin tone, different hair texture. … Some people even went beyond touching me. That’s not my comfort zone.”
She said that she would evaluate these types of situations by considering why people were behaving this way toward her, asking herself whether they were just curious about her or whether they had a preconceived notion of her. “More often than not, it was just some curiosity about me,” Ehikhamhen said, adding that the DIE method proved helpful for her.
Simmons touched on the idea of double consciousness: “One idea of African-American studies and literature is the idea of double consciousness, ... the consciousness of not only yourself but of seeing yourself as other people would see you,” she explained.
However, Simmons added, seeing yourself as others see you is not the only thing that is important: “I also recommend [that you] don’t suppress yourself,” she said “There’s no reason to not want to be who you are or to exist in the way that you exist — especially if you are in a place that’s safe and accepting of that.”
As a major in IGS and Business, Fogan decided to study abroad Singapore, which she described as “one of the most booming business countries in the world right now.”
She described one instance where she was aware she was in an area that wasn’t used to Black culture, recounting, “I had that moment where I did a braid out, and I had my hair, but I felt so uncomfortable because people kept looking at me. It wasn’t that people didn’t think that it was beautiful or that they didn’t like it — they had just never really seen it.”
Ehikhamhen urged students to interact with the local culture while abroad. “Being yourself, being true to yourself, that’s absolutely true, but I also challenge you to challenge yourself to immerse yourself in their culture,” she said. “Challenge yourself and actually do it, and the experience will be so much more rich.”
Simmons echoed the sentiment: “There’s a difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation, and you can appreciate a culture by being invited in to experience it, and that’s what you should do.”
Fogan left the audience with one final message, saying, “The experience was an incredible one. I miss the food so much but also just living in the moment and not worrying, and just exploring. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; don’t let the little things that annoy you take away from that opportunity.”
“Students of Color Back From Abroad” was an event held in conjunction with I Am Global Week and sponsored by the Brandeis Black Student Organization and the Office of Study Abroad.