Study Abroad: How Setting Expectations and A Little Kindness Can Go a Long Way

A month or so ago a colleague and I were speaking with a graduate student from Iran about how she ended up studying and conducting research at a couple of universities in the mid-west. She was the most wonderful, bubbly, likable person I’ve met in some time, but our conversation took a bit of a turn when we transitioned from general conversation about the topic we were meant to discuss to the larger conversation of her study abroad experience in the U.S.

I was devastated by her story. I was literally crying in my office and rushed her for a hug when we were going our separate ways at the end.

The long and short is that while she’s in a better place now, she did not have a good first year in the States. She had very little information when she moved here—about the degree program, about expectations for how much time she would be committing to her degree/research efforts, about how she was meant to physically get herself to the places she needed to be—on and on.

She has been going non-stop for a year with no break, very little communication with her family, who she didn’t want to worry, and is only just now finding a balance and her way around. She said several times she nearly gave up, and I couldn’t blame her.

To me, the initial bizarre part of her story was the lack of information supplied her about how she would get around once she was here. Although her studies are all at one university (she had all kinds of housing issues but luckily those were eventually resolved), she has to drive to another university to conduct her research. There is currently no public transportation between the two, and she was told she needed to purchase a car and get a driver’s license.

Seriously?? Think about that process. Think about what you went through to get your license and how much money you needed to buy a car, and then know that in Iran, she doesn’t get herself around, she takes public transportation everywhere. This was completely new to her.

And by the way she’s in an intense doctoral degree program.

And by the way English is her second language.

And by the way she is very far away from home for the first time and trying to figure out the culture and her studies.

And by the way no one ever set that expectation throughout her application and review process or shared this with her as she was preparing to move to the U.S. for the duration (read: years) it would take her to complete her program.

And by the way she was then asked to learn to drive and purchase a vehicle so she could do her work.

So that is what she did!! Albeit with difficulty—even once she got the license and car she ended up in a mild traffic incident and going to court. She was terrified and had no idea what to do.

This leads into the second bizarre part of her story, which is how terrible people are. Really, I was overcome with disappointment. I was aghast the whole time she was talking and could barely sputter out some question about why she didn’t ask her roommate/classmates/mentors/instructors/person on the street to help her and maybe even drive her back and forth until she could get a little more information and get her bearings on the situation.

What is so disappointing to me is that she did. She did ask for help, and no one would help her. No one could be bothered to help her get around or even to give her instructions on how to get around.

Except the department chair overseeing the lab she’s working in.

She credits this man as the only reason she is still here and finally getting to a better place. As the exclusive person who helped her. After emailing his entire department to see if anyone who was passing her on their way into work would be willing to drive her back and forth for a while (no one would do it), he personally went out of his way to do it. He went with her to court for her traffic violation and helped her navigate that process. He was also a support system when she desperately needed it.

I don’t work with him too frequently, but as soon as she left my office I sent him an email thanking him for being a person—an incredibly kind person at that—and told him if anything like this ever came up again to call me. I would be happy to help.

I would like to say I did that solely because I’m a nice person, but I know that’s not entirely true.

The truth is that her study abroad experience hits a little too close to home.

Excerpt from my diary , Jan. 19, 2005:

My bus took an hour and a half to get to Coleraine, and then I had to catch another bus to the University. I didn’t know where I was or where to get off, and realized too late the bus had left the University and was headed into the country when I yelled that I needed off. He let me off on the side of the road with my bags, and I just started to cry and walk down this country road back toward the campus. Suddenly this man and woman in a car pulled over to the side of the road and asked if I needed help. While I cried, they put my luggage in their trunk and had me sit up front. Their names were James and Carla, and they got me to the international studies office, to accommodations and even gave me a brief tour of campus. I was so, incredibly thankful.

First of all, I had been traveling for about 24 hours. Second, I had very little sleep. Third, it was my first time out of the country and I was all alone.

I look back and cannot believe I got in a car with two strangers in a foreign country, but I also know I didn’t have a choice. I was lost and scared and a friendly face was the only lifeline I had at that point.

I won’t bother you with my continued struggles, but I will mention they had to do with having no heat for about a week (I was literally sleeping under a pile of clothes I dumped out of my suitcase onto a bed to try to stay warm), access to money/additional money I was supposed to be paying that I didn’t have (many a tear shed in the international affairs office), and a less than desirable housing situation (which resulted in my moving houses a couple of weeks after I was there—probably the best thing that happened to me as I met everyone I would eventually be friends with and travel with for the duration of our stay).

I at least had the benefit of speaking the native language, and a shoulder to cry on, figuratively speaking. I called my parents and filled them in, which looking back was probably a terrible thing to do to them since they were probably already nervous enough about my being away for half a year on my own.

I also had two terribly kind individuals—James and Carla—who made a world of difference with their one simple act. It probably cost them a couple of hours of their evening, and the result was my months of happiness abroad and a following eight years of continued international travel and wanderlust.

It just boggles my mind that in a world that has become so interconnected and so flat, there are still these huge miscommunications and poorly stated expectations, especially regarding international studies at universities. It has crossed my mind several times that this might be some sort of budding career path given my personal experiences and bleeding heart for those who are still experiencing difficulties.

But even more than that, I am sincerely disappointed in people and their lack of kindness. We are all busy—this world moves too fast for anyone to keep up—and we all have our own affairs to tend to, but just a touch of kindness, especially in the right instant, can go such a long way.

If there is anything I hope I take away from my experiences and travel, it’s that kindness and compassion are universal and that although you can’t always know what you’re getting yourself into, it shouldn’t be too much to expect a little guidance.

If the department chair does call on me to help sometime this fall when the new students arrive, I will be ready and willing. In this small way, I do think I can make a difference.

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