Written for & published by Abroad101.com (April 2013) Wellness Wednesday column
By Melissa Doman, M.A.
President Jimmy Carter explained that, “we become not a melting pot, but a beautiful mosaic. Different people, different beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, different dreams.” This eloquent combination of words really encompasses the natural beauty of multiculturalism and diversity of the human condition.
Exposure to cultures, people, and beliefs different from your own is one of the most invaluable experiences you'll ever have in your life. It’s wonderful you’re having the adventure of a lifetime, but I want to call attention to one of the most important character developments you’re experiencing during studying abroad: how your international exposure is promoting your worldview of human diversity. You are not just experiencing new things – you're learning too.
Developing your knowledge and sensitivity to differences of those around you will serve you so well in your personal life and in your professional career as well. You may not realize it, but living in a different country and living your daily life in another culture is expanding and changing the lens you view your entire life through. Within your personal life, you might find that during and after study abroad, you may pose questions and challenge yourself to think more broadly about general human behavior, how you interact with one person, or how a group of people interact with each other. You're fortunate to get first hand experience via experiential learning about diversity as opposed to just studying it in textbooks. Doing something, versus simply learning about something, goes miles further than you could ever be aware of.
On top of that, your increased awareness of multiculturalism can also influence your career path. Studying abroad can change how you look at your job search. You can bet your bottom dollar that a significant number of jobs, specifically those that are people-oriented and service-oriented, usually have criteria demanding cultural sensitivity skills. Such job descriptions may include phrases like, “must possess familiarity and sensitivity to different multicultural, ethnic, and religious backgrounds of clients.” Employers are acutely aware of the fact that multicultural sensitivity through cultural immersion is a rare skill for potential employees to have. This is an invaluable skill that you’ve picked up during your travels! Respect it and use it the best ways you can.
Some great additional benefits you may notice from experiencing diversity in a foreign context first hand are:
1. Increased patience when encountering difference
2. Curiosity and a voracious hunger for knowledge about the unknown
3. Appreciation of uniqueness
4. Finding common ground and unity between yourself and someone very different
5. ‘Paying it forward’ by educating friends back home about your experiences
It’s so exciting to take what you once knew about yourself, how you viewed your environment, and enhance it by what you’re now experiencing and seeing. It fundamentally alters how you process things. It could be subtle nuances of how people communicate to each other through tone of voice, the connotations of a local phrase, different body language, cultural meanings, or how family processes are interpreted.
Try to soak it all in.
In a previous posting, I mentioned the importance of self-reflection during study abroad. This is an example of what I mentioned! Take note of these changes in how you process things, new people, and how you relate to the environment around you. You may be starkly surprised in your ‘before’ and ‘after’ versions of yourself.
Remember the words of the American Philosopher, Mortimer Adler, who described this experiential process best. “The purpose of learning is growth, and our minds, unlike our bodies, can continue growing as long as we live.”