Reflections on Cultural Exchanges

Publications Office Note: Matthew Hubbard and Ben Shega, both Class of 2009, are teaching in Shanghai through the Marshall University (West Virginia) Teach in China Program.In the summer of 2009, Matt was one of 30 American students selected to participate in the U.S. – China 30/30 Program commemorating 30 years of student exchange between the two countries.  This was a fully funded program through the Institute for International Education Fulbright Program sponsored by the Department of State.

by Matthew R. Hubbard ’09

(In April 2009 Matthew Ryan Hubbard (center) received the prestigious Wilson Center Public Service Certificate from Dr. Walter M. Bortz III, Former President of Hampden-Sydney College (right), and Dr. David E. Marion, Director of the Wilson Center for Leadership in the Public Interest (left).  The Public Service Certificates are presented to seniors who have successfully completed a two-year concentration of classes, internship, and research and who are seriously considering careers in public service. )

It might be safe to say that a sizeable number of undergraduates who consider studying abroad see their experience as an opportunity for anything from achieving a higher language proficiency to self-actualization.  Programs of this nature are rarely seen through the lens of geopolitics, perhaps because some students are unwilling or unable, due to lack of awareness to view in this way the process of cultural immersion and linguistic acquisition in a foreign country.

If you are considering working in Teach for America, the Peace Corps, the military, or international business studying abroad is a means of dipping your feet in the water of a seemingly-vast pool that encompasses many careers that might appeal to your more altruistic instincts.

Studying abroad is an opportunity to make as big or as little an impact on the world around you as you wish.  If you actively seek opportunities to discuss culture, politics, and economics with the citizens of another country, it has an impact on the way they see the world.

It is probable that such interactions educate individuals and help to create the kind of understanding among the world’s citizens that is necessary if there is to be a lessening of cultural myopia and the pressure on policymakers to take actions that make cooperation in the world more difficult.  Your conversations might influence your interlocutor, who then might talk to her previously-xenophobic uncle—you know, the one who may have the ear of a national politician.

Cultural exchanges make an impact on the way peoples see each another. The professors from various foreign backgrounds who teach at Hampden-Sydney — whether temporarily or for the long term — sometimes fundamentally impact the way students at the College see themselves in the world.  Former Fulbright scholars who taught Chinese at Hampden-Sydney, Professors Guo and Li, were individuals who introduced previously unknown facets of China to H-SC students.  Those professors were in a way cultural ambassadors, and the United States government’s sponsorship of these two gentlemen is a testament to the weight the U.S. government gives to cultural exchanges on campuses with new Chinese language programs.

Professor Li, knowing of my interest in China and my desire eventually to make the country and its people the focus of my career, was kind enough to submit my name to the U.S. State Department for a summer peer-to-peer exchange program.

While in China for the three weeks of the 30/30 Program and during the many months ahead that I will spend in Shanghai teaching English and world history courses designed for native and non-native speakers,  I hope I have facilitated and will continue to facilitate greater sensitivity on both sides of the Pacific.

Cultural exchanges must occur with greater frequency if the lack of knowledge of different cultures and their motivations are to be lessened.  There is much work to be done and an immersion experience abroad as an H-SC man is a step in the right direction.

An incredible experience

On September 6, many of the nearly 60 Hampden-Sydney students who had engaged in international study during the past year gathered to talk about their experiences.

Most frequently used expressions: “I would go back in a heart beat,” “It was good for me,” “I made great friends,” “It made me appreciate Hampden-Sydney.” Consensus: the food was so, so; it rains a great deal in the British Isles, much beer and wine was consumed; we learned a lot, and it was an incredible experience.

For Hampden-Sydney students who grew up in small towns, one of the greatest adjustments was to city life. During a metro strike in Paris, David Price ’02 from Collinsville, VA, who was with the Sweet Briar Program, had to walk two and half hours to class. “Really, once you get to understand how the French think and what their ideas are and what their customs are, they are very nice people, and I made numerous friends.”

For Edward Finnerty ’02 from Charleston, SC, Dublin was a challenge. Good public transportation is nonexistent, “everyday something happened, but you just had to laugh.” Despite the municipal shortcomings, Teddy, who studied psychology at Trinity College, asserts that in Dublin, “every night was a brand new experience; it was really fun. Anybody our age should definitely go there…just to witness the madness.”

Logan Wanamaker ’02 spent a year in Granada. He stayed with a host family for the first semester. “It was a little overwhelming when they picked me up and drove me into the city; I am from a small town [Durango, CO] and had never lived in a city.” Second semester, Logan lived in an apartment downtown with two young Italian women and two young Spanish women, which was “a big switch from Hampden-Sydney. First semester I got in a rut and I was hanging out with Americans and going out with Americans but once I moved in with my other roommates, my Spanish really took off.” He spent free days on the beach at la Costa del Sol and on weekends went skiing in the Sierra Nevada. “I brought my skis over and made great friends up at the ski resort, so I had buddies that I got to go skiing with. To have something that you really enjoy to share with someone from another country was really special to me.” He traveled all over Spain, to southern Portugal, Morocco, into the Sahara by camel to Marrakech, to Majorca, and through the Basque country. “Now when I look at a map of Spain I know what every town looks like and all the history behind it. It was an incredible experience.”

McKay Johnson ’02 from Atlanta, GA, studied international business at the University of Victoria in Wellington, New Zealand. He traveled all over New Zealand, which is “absolutely beautiful, very green, mountains everywhere.” The New Zealanders call hiking tramping, and McKay did plenty of tramping. The study was initiative based. There were no textbooks; it was up to you how much you learned, and people there study “real hard.” The New Zealanders are “absolutely great people, friendly, real nice.” He encountered the indigenous Moari culture that, although poorly treated in the beginning, the New Zealanders did not try to exterminate them as was done to the indigenous populations in the United States and Australia. Today, the two cultures live well together. McKay visited Australia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Burma. “It is incredible [in Burma] to see the struggle that is going on for human rights.” He spent a month in China traveling from Hong Kong to Beijing meeting local people. “It was an incredible experience. The government is screwed up, but I cannot tell you how nice the people are and how beautiful the country is.”

Bert Drummond ’02 from Hampton, VA, participated in the Antioch College Program in Germany, Poland, Hungary, and the United Kingdom. There were 11 students in the program with a 23-year old Polish leader: according to Bert, “she is beautiful with a moving personality.” The program centered on an independent research project based on interviews and experiences. “Our professor, Manfred McDowell, is a brilliant man and an atheist, which contrasted to me as a Christian, and one of my majors is religion. My independent study had to do with the theory of secularization in terms of Europe. I had to be extremely objective and use nothing but facts and data in writing. It was really challenging for me and healthy. Poland and Hungary are extraordinary places with extraordinary people. Hungary has a large Romanian population who, believe it or not, are more discriminated against than African-Americans in the United States. In the Polish villages, people are under such [economic] duress. They are in a completely different situation than we are; yet, we had so much in common when we talked to each other. I lived with a Jewish family in Budapest; Jewish life in Europe, especially Central Europe, is an whole different world.”

“We stayed in London for a month. We went from Poland where people are warm, compassionate, and friendly to London where everyone is not so warm, compassionate, and friendly. England is an extremely secular society. I think I saw the sun for maybe two consecutive hours on one day, but you get used to it after awhile. It was so fun, so fun.”

Six Hampden-Sydney students participated in the Virginia Program at Oxford and studied at St. Anne’s College. According to Kerr Ramsay of Raleigh, NC, dormitory life was less than luxurious, “the shower was the size of a toilet,” but “the library you study in was founded by James I, I think about the time of Jamestown. In the upper reading rooms you can see where Charles I had his government during the English Civil War and there is a place where you can still see the burn marks where Bloody Mary [Mary Tudor] burned Protestants at the stake.”

Andrew Walshe ’02, from Herndon, VA, spent a year at the London School of Economics. “It was more work than I thought it would be, but it was a good experience.” The school was filled with a very diverse group of people and “absolutely brilliant” people. “I was just hanging on for dear life at the beginning, but, by the end of it, I was doing OK, and everything worked out really well. We had amazing lecturers. It was tremendous. After lectures, you go to class with graduate students; every graduate assistant I had was from a different country: England, Germany, Italy, Greece, and Holland. On all, it was good experience and a good time. Living in London was tremendous.”

Andy Yarborough ’02, Gulf Shores, AL, studied for a semester at James Cook University in Cairns, Australia, a small, about 3000, university on the northeast coast. He lived in student lodge with students from all over world. “The land is unbelievable: it is nearly impossible to be bored: you can draw so much enjoyment from the land.” In his indigenous studies courses, Andy learned that the treatment of Aborigines was comparable to that of Native Americans, and race relations in Australia are still delicate. He went out into different aboriginal communities and befriended a head of a clan who took him out into the bush, interpreted aboriginal rock art, and to ancient initiation sites. “I was lucky to be able to go and to get in with the people I did. I saw places where land is still totally pristine and untouched by civilization, a far cry from anything that I have seen in the States.”