Led by Professor Pamela Eddy, the group of education and counseling students spent two weeks in the country at the end of May, meeting with administrators, collaborating with Italian students and conducting independent research – all in an effort to build their intercultural competency.
“An international experience or culture immersion does not happen by reading a fascinating narrative or seeing even the most real-to-life photographs,” said Tiffany Pugh, a doctoral student in higher education administration. “But the opportunity to experience a culture first-hand, in-country, can broaden your worldview and challenge your assumptions, if you are willing to be open to it.”
The trip began at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan where the Center for Higher Education Internationalization – the only higher education research center in the country – is located. The center is led by Director Hans de Wit, who is co-editor of the Journal of Studies in International Education and recently published the well-received Trends, Issues and Challenges in Internationalisation of Higher Education.
The W&M students met with the center’s administrators, including Gianluca Samsa (head manager outbound international programs) and Lea Senn (head manager inbound international programs), and learned about Italy’s efforts to both send students abroad and support students from abroad studying in the country. Later, the W&M students heard from a panel of European students who had participated in the European Union’s Erasmus exchange program. Fiona Hunter (CHEI research associate), addressed student questions on the influence of culture on education and helped interpret how the Italian context differs from that in America. Hearing from the administrators and students helped the W&M students to see that there are other ways to approach their respective disciplines, said Eddy.
“What we know about learning is that the most transformational learning occurs when there’s dissonance, and there’s an element of dissonance that occurs when you’re going into a different cultural environment,” she said, adding that students often try to make sense out of what they are learning based on what they know.
“You’re in a new country, and they’re talking about a new higher ed system, for instance, and you think, well, of course, it’s set up like the Carnegie Classification. … Well, it doesn’t work anything like that, so you have to set aside some of what you think you know and have a different kind of open mind,” she said.
From Milan, the W&M group traveled to the University of Padova, one of Italy’s top-ranked research universities. There, the W&M students attended lectures and developed three case studies – both in English and Italian – with Padova students. Several W&M students also conducted research. Doctoral student Amy Williams, for instance, interviewed the Italian university students about substance use and consequences.
“Not only was I able to conduct a research study during the trip, but I also learned a lot about the differences between American and Italian conceptualizations of addiction, treatment, and post-treatment opportunities,” she said.
At the end of the week in Padova, W&M students presented their research as part of a one-day conference about the future of counseling in Italy. Originally, the students were going to present their work in a short research symposium, but the University of Padova turned the opportunity into a national event about the future of counseling, with about 150 people in attendance and William & Mary Education Dean Spencer Niles as the keynote speaker. Although she doesn’t specialize in counseling, Eddy, too, was asked to speak at the conference about the idea of leading change.
“It really made me think about what we look at as permeable borders between our areas of study and discipline because often we think we’re in our little silo, and we really need to be reaching out,” she said. Likewise, students found applications to their own areas of research interests—often in unexpected ways.
Surprises over gelato
Although Eddy made sure that her students had plenty of learning opportunities during the trip, she knew that some of the most significant moments for the students would happen spontaneously and during casual outings, such as the group’s tour through Rome or the cooking class they participated in.
“It’s always the surprises on the trips like this that are the real gems,” she said. “You always tell students, just be flexible, be open and you’re going to be surprised.”
Pugh found that to be true, noting that several of her “biggest takeaways” from the trip “materialized over a meal or gelato, on a commute, or in the last few minutes of the day as I [wound] down.”
Those interactions provided Pugh with a greater understanding of how culture impacts a person’s life.
“It is important to be able to work with diverse people,” said Pugh, who currently works in the system office for Virginia’s Community Colleges. “I want to be aware of how culture influences individual behaviors and group dynamics so that I can be effective in working with people who come from cultures different than my own. Through this international experience, I was able to see the connection between culture and behaviors and dynamics in real, tangible ways.”
Williams, whose trip to Italy was only the second time she’s ever been in an airplane, said that it’s important for graduate students to have opportunities like this, especially counseling students like her.
“Counseling students in particular need to develop abilities and skills related to flexibility, tolerance for ambiguity, and openness to new experiences and the perspectives, customs, and cultures of others,” she said. “I believe that study abroad is an experiential undertaking that provides authentic opportunities for growth, reflection, and professional development in all of these areas.”
This was the third year in a row that Eddy has seen just how much studying abroad can impact graduate students like Williams and Pugh. Since 2012, Eddy and her colleague Jim Barber have led graduate students from the School of Education on international trips each summer as part of a global studies course. The first group traveled to Ireland; last year, it was China. Next year’s destination is South Africa.
In addition to benefitting students, these trips benefit William & Mary, said Eddy. Students develop lifelong relationships with those they shared time with on the trip and by association, develop strong ties to the unviersity through the experience, and William & Mary develops important international ties with educational leaders and institutions abroad. For instance, one of the results of the most recent trip to Italy is the development of a memorandum of understanding between the University of Padova and William & Mary, which will likely provide opportunities for students and faculty at the College for years to come.
Although it was a very busy two weeks, Eddy is pleased with all that her students were able to learn and accomplish during their time in Italy.
“They were just bursting out of their skin by the time the trip ended. You could see the light bulbs coming on. They were just shining, so that makes all of the work worth it.”