This year's Forum on Education Abroad conference in Atlanta felt like it was over almost as soon as it started. Abbie and I arrived a day early to take advantage of a pre-conference workshop on digital storytelling in education abroad. The session ran from 8 to 5 and was intense. Time flew by, as it does when you are engrossed in meaningful work.
The session was team-taught by IE pros Doug Reilly and Thomas D'Agostino from Hobart and William Smith Colleges and Joe Lambert from StoryCenter. Joe was a founder in the digital storytelling movement. It was wonderful to have all of them in the room, coaching us in our endeavor.
Before we arrived in Atlanta, the team sent us all an email with our homework-- find a compelling story we wanted to tell, location images to go with the story, and draft a 200-word script. This prep work, while not exactly what you want to do right before you scoot out of the office for a trip, was what made it possible to cram the 3-day workshop into a 1-day session. I started with an article I wrote for this blog. Abbie found a poem she wrote during her re-entry from study abroad in Spain.
The workshop started out with an intensive on digital storytelling principles and a few samples of the art form. We then moved to the story circle phase, where we pitched our script ideas and gave constructive feedback to one another. I cannot say enough about the value of this step. Sometimes we have the kernel of an idea but we don't feel confident about direction or the message we convey until we let others tell us what they are hearing. Having a safe space to do this, and reflecting on the elements of a good story, was a valuable and fun exercise.
As a professional, I write all the time, but rarely (if ever) do I write about deeply personal topics in an emotionally expressive way. Digital storytelling demands this. Somehow limiting our stories to 200 words is a magical formula. It's like poetry. This restriction taught us to be efficient and intentional in our art. You have to find ways to convey a message through thoughtful imagery, words, and tone when all you've got is 200 words. You learn where to cut and where to linger.
The software we used was called WeVideo. It's available free online if you want to try it in the basic version. I found it far more intuitive than iMovie or Moviemaker, but that is just me. It's an easy drag and drop system. You can layer sound and images as well as add in all the fancy effects like other video editing systems.
In the end the technology really takes a back seat to the story. I came into the workshop thinking we'd get a lot of technical training-- and we did learn new things like how different fade effects signal transition or conclusion and ways to layer music. Most of what I learned was how to dig inside myself to find a good story and work hard to shape it into something that draws others in.
At the end of our day we did a little screening party and it was so moving to not only see other people's personal stories, but to acknowledge how far they'd come when just a few hours ago we were in a circle hearing the initial pitches and giving feedback.
On Friday, Tom, Doug, and Joe had a Forum conference session that incorporated our work. They gave an overview of the process to a packed room. They showed a few of our films (Abbie and I made the cut), invited us to speak about how we see ourselves implementing the pedagogy on our campuses, and let us share how it felt to participate in the process. They even added our names to the slide-- so I guess it was not just a workshop but a backdoor to a Forum conference presentation.
It was a strange but rewarding feeling to be able to look around the room and see the response of people watching my story...to see their smiles or hear their gasps and side comments. It is unlike anything I have experienced. Normally when I am presenting my work I am standing in front of a room, too focused on delivery and nerves to really soak up more than a few faces in the crowd. This felt so much less threatening. I can't wait to try digital storytelling with my re-entry students and let them experience the same.
We only had a day so our end products were rough. I'm still a little embarrassed by mine and have so many tweaks I want to make to the images. And I'd love to add a music track. Abbie also feels that hers is just a start so I promised I'd share a disclaimer. She plans to add in more images after a trip to Spain this summer.
But you can at least get the idea of what is possible in a few hours if you let go of perfectionism and allow yourself to reflect on life's lessons:
Abbie's Digital Story
Kelly's Digital Story (adapted from this post)
I love movies. I especially love watching movies about people who are experiencing a new culture for the first time and consequently going through the roller coaster of emotions associated with culture shock, adjustment, and re-entry.
If I had my way, I'd design an entire college course around culture shock in film. (Let me know if anyone knows of a class like this!) It would be amazing to use these movies to frame the study abroad journey with my students.
Here are my top 3 picks to watch through a "post-study abroad" lens:
L'Auberge Espagnole ~ The Spanish Apartment (2002)
The Spanish Apartment is a French film set in Barcelona, Spain, following the story of ERASMUS exchange students from England, Denmark, Italy, Belgium, Germany, and Spain. They are all living together in an apartment while they go to university. How is that for international...
Why watch: This movie is a must-see for anyone who participated in an exchange program. You will have flashbacks to all of the cultural negotiation and awkwardness. It kind of has an Amelie vibe (for obvious reasons).
When to watch: On a lazy day. It's drama -- a slow version of a reality show. Watch when you want to snuggle in blankets or if you are feeling nostalgic about your European exchange program.
Where to find it: Currently streaming on Netflix
LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003)
Lost in Translation takes place in Japan. A washed-up film actor from the U.S. (played by Bill Murray) and a lonely wife (played by Scarlett Johansson) develop an unlikely bond during their mutual cultural disorientation as newbies in Tokyo.
Why watch: This film does a great job of capturing the experience of being in a new city abroad and feeling culturally lost. Just like study abroad students band together to survive the initial culture shock stage, Bob and Charlotte form a strong bond born out of their fear, loneliness, and confusion.
When to watch: Late on a friday night. The film is artsy but has a good vibe. Make a fun cocktail and get lost in the amazing visuals.
Where to find it: Amazon Rental, Netflix DVD
Outsourced (you might be familiar with the TV show of the same name) is a culture-clash flick. The main character, Todd, is a call center manager who gets sent to overseas to train staff at his company's branch in India. As you can imagine, his Indian colleagues have very different ways of approaching work, friendship, and love. The film also showcases the ways in which a global economy impacts national and personal identity.
Why watch: Outsourced is funny because like many Americans who've never traveled abroad, Todd has zero awareness of his own American culture. It highlights that culture shock is not just about "them" but "us". The movie does a good job of showing how we can all adapt.
When to watch: When you need a good laugh. This movie is an upbeat romantic comedy.
Where to find it: Currently streaming on Netflix
You might have already watched one, or all, of these. However, since they are a bit older you should check them out again with fresh eyes-- post-study abroad eyes. And if you have never heard of them, be sure to track them down.
Have other films you recommend? Be sure to share them in the comments section.
My own "breaking in" story is one I don't share very often. Or at least I don't share the full story. I routinely chart my career trajectory, but I tend to edit out the disappointing parts. I guess that is natural. But the more involved I get with Study Abroad Careers, the more I realize failure is an important part of my personal narrative. Without frustration I might not have uncovered my passion. And for this reason I have decided to share that story in today's post.
a bad case of reverse shock
It was April 2001. I returned from my semester abroad, completely down in the dumps. I spent an hour alone at the Indianapolis airport, sitting on the curb by the taxis, reading Bridget Jones’ Diary. I was in no rush to return home. I wanted to remain anonymous, to get right back on that airplane and return to life in London.
As the days passed, I found myself feeling uncomfortable with my own culture in new and curious ways. My inner dialogue was increasingly judgmental:
By the end of the summer I was still jobless and still holding out hope for something international. My parents politely told me I needed to find something fast or leave. I responded by holing up in my room and reading the newly released book, Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in your Twenties. I thought I was was experiencing depression or some kind of existential crisis. I now realize it was just a bad case of reverse culture shock with inopportune timing.
I eventually got a paying job in retail and came out of my bedroom. Yet I still had this feeling that I needed to do something more meaningful. I asked myself the question you are supposed to in times of professional uncertainty,
The answer was clear and instant. I would go back to working my student receptionist job in international programs. I wanted to “rid the world of the ugly American” (ha!). And I thought orientation could, and should, be so much more.
As luck would have it, a university in my hometown was hiring a secretary for their London program. It seemed perfect. During the academic year I’d live in town and summers would be spent abroad, on-site with students. This was a dream job. I applied, and to my surprise, I landed an on-campus interview right away. They were concerned about my age and how I might be perceived by students, faculty, and parents. I left the interview hopeful.
a different perspective
A few weeks later, on September 11, 2001, I returned home from work early for reasons that are now historical. At a time when seemingly everyone in my country was in shock, asking “How could this happen to us?” I remained detached. I had no disillusionment about the way our country was viewed in the world. I had been out there and saw things through the lens of “other”. But I couldn’t express any of it. I felt like a traitor to think in this way. I still do.
I found the commercialism of the time disgusting. Superstores all moved everything red, white, and blue to the end-caps because they were selling fast. Flip flops, ribbons, flags, paper plates. It was surreal. Amidst the confusion and endless TV reports, the uncertainty and numb feeling, I had an answering machine message blinking back at me. (Yes, we used those back then.) I didn’t get the job.
Something happened in that instant and it flipped a kind of switch. When I listened to the message I just knew this is what I was called to do. I didn’t even feel disappointment just I vowed to try harder next time, to figure out what it was that was missing, and find a way to gain those skills and experiences. I took the timing as some strange cruel signal.
I don’t even remember when, but sometime that autumn I returned to my university and set up an appointment with the study abroad coordinator. I told her I wanted to get a job like hers and asked what I could do to work toward that goal. She explained I needed to keep studying Spanish, to get a master’s degree, and most importantly, to gain experience. She offered me the chance to be her graduate assistant the following two years if I was really serious about my desire to learn.
I also found a way to get back to London in the spring and arranged an informational interview with someone working on-site as a resident director for a US university. I asked her some of the same questions as the study abroad coordinator,
The big break
A year into my assistantship I got a phone call from my supervisor late at night. She was burned out and had just given two-weeks notice to the university. No one knew but me. She suggested I get my resume together just in case, knowing how badly I wanted to work in the field. I was excited but completely overwhelmed. I wasn’t finished with my master's degree and I only had one year of experience. But I knew it was the opportunity of a lifetime and school would still be there. I applied and got the job. I was in the right time, at the right place, with the right experience. Suddenly I wasn’t just working in a job like hers. I was in her job.
paying it forward
So many people I meet have similar stories regarding how they broke in to the field of international education. It can feel frustrating for it to all seem so serendipitous. I suppose that is one of the reasons I founded Study Abroad Careers -- to provide support and resources to individuals as they question whether this is their path. There is no formula or secret to getting a job in study abroad. But there are themes -- networking, apprenticeship, and open-mindedness to name a few. Hopefully that shines through in the stories you find here.