Studying Abroad: On and Off The Hill

Written by Isabella Antonelli ’20, Nha Le ’21, and Casey Trimm ’20

Studying abroad is one of the greatest opportunities students can have to completely immerse themselves in another culture and learn about the world outside of themselves. For some students, that means leaving The Hill, while for others that means coming to The Hill. We spoke with six students at Denison: three of whom are from the United States and studied in other countries (Iceland, Cameroon, and South Africa) and three students who are from abroad (China, Thailand, and The Netherlands) to compare their experiences of homesickness, culture shock, and strategies to feel at home wherever you are. 

Students from the United States who Studied off of The Hill

Kevin Katz ‘20

Kevin Katz ‘20 studied abroad in Iceland through the Center for Ecological Living and Learning (CELL) from the beginning of February to the end of April of his junior year (2019). 

He lived in Sólheimar, the only eco-village in Iceland, southeast of Reykjavík with one hundred residents. His program consisted of four U.S. students. 

Sólheimar is a community that hosts people who have physical and mental disabilities. “It’s the idea of reverse integration. Rather than people who have disabilities having to get used to the idea of able-bodied people, they live in their own community. They’re not being ostracized, it’s to give them a sense of purpose and responsibility. They are very functioning people.”

The residents pay their own rent, have a job, and work for the community. The products they make, such as rugs and sweaters, get distributed to the larger Icelandic country.

“I got to see the power and impact that the community’s work had on the greater Icelandic community.” Katz lives in the Homestead (presently and the Fall 2018) at Denison. He describes Sólheimar feeling like the Homestead on a grander scale.

In terms of people and the culture, Katz describes having little culture shock. “Icelandic culture is not too different from the United States. I didn’t expect that and maybe I was shocked by how it didn’t feel different.”

He explains that this could be due to Iceland being one of the only Western countries to have not had an industrial revolution. “One day they were living in turf houses, and the next they had TVs.”

Iceland is so far north that in the winter when Katz arrived, there was sometimes as little as four hours of daylight. “You don’t really realize how dark it is until you’re in it.” Now, he sees the importance of sunrooms and Vitamin D supplements.

Coming back to the United State hit Katz even harder than when he left to Iceland. “I went from a country that is so nature oriented. I think I’m only now just getting over it.” 

Ambar Deleon ‘20

Ambar Deleon ‘20 studied in Cameroon in her Spring 2019 semester through SIT Cameroon Development and Social Change.

She describes picking up day-to-day behaviors in Cameroon that have stuck with her now. “I was around a lot of people in Cameroon constantly. Everyone says hi and you see a lot of people acting communal in a way that you don’t see that here. Coming back, I feel weird just smiling at people.” 

“I’m more sociable now and am more straightforward in the way I interact with people because that’s the way it was in Cameroon. There’s no subtleties, it’s just how it is.”

A small, but vital, form of culture shock was transportation for Deleon. “The way you had to get from place to place was funny, but frustrating. To hail down a taxi you had to shout out where you’re going and what you’re willing to pay. They would drive very slowly and you and everyone else would yell out where you are going.”

Deleon was not fluent in French and found the language barrier to be an expected challenge.

“I would mispronounce a lot of the places and they would have to stop and ask me.

French in Cameroon was far different than the French spoken in France and the French taught in the U.S. However, she recalls that people in Cameroon would be more lenient and understanding of any mispronunciations. 

Deleon stayed with a host family made up of a grandmother, mother, brother, and sister. “I came to Denison an independent person, and then being at Denison — it was just me. I didn’t have to tell anyone what I was doing. In Cameroon, I thought I would want the family dynamic, but ended up not wanting that,” Deleon laughs. “I didn’t feel like I was meant to be in a family [during her time abroad.]”

The family gave Deleon space when she needed it, but also left her feeling “weird” because of unspoken expectations to be around the family.

Deleon most misses the food. “It was so amazing. I miss the fish. It was so soft and juicy that I thought it was chicken because it was so good. My host mom would make a peanut sauce soup with fish in it and beans and rice. The pineapple was always sweet, fruit is so different there.”
Coming back to the U.S, Deleon felt ready to come home. “It was sad because I was leaving and I didn’t know when I would see everyone again.”

“Everything is so loud in the U.S. But I remember seeing my family and being so happy.” Deleon recalls touching down in Miami and giving her family gifts from her months abroad. 

Once she got home, she was left wondering “Now what do I do?” She had two weeks with her family before going back to Denison for the summer to do senior research.

Jane Scott ‘20 

Jane Scott, a senior Psychology major from Charlottesville, Virginia studied in Cape Town, South Africa with Arcadia in the Fall 2018. 

“I never really thought about culture shock like most people do. I kind of rolled with it. But reflecting back on it, the main thing that felt like culture shock was the inequality I saw in South Africa, specifically in Cape Town.”

Scott explained that the wealth gap in South Africa is the largest in the world. 

“I had never seen such [extreme] poverty like I saw it there. Obviously you know it exists, but it’s different when you actually see it. I saw people who were living with families of ten people in what looked like metal boxes, and then you drive twenty minutes outside of the city and you saw these beachside mansions.”

It was something that jarred Scott who remembers seeing an incredible wealth gap in the U.S. between on her drive from her hometown back to Denison.

“I drive through Charleston, West Virginia on my way back to campus. On the left of the highway, I see Charleston as a big city with this gorgeous buildings. On the right side of the highway are trailer parks. To me, I would think how horrible that was because you can visually see the inequality.” 

But since coming back from Cape Town, Scott now says nothing she sees is comparable to what she saw there. 

“I wasn’t fully expecting it, but I knew there would of course be poverty partly because the apartheid was so recent. Nothing can be really fixed in twenty-five years. I had to live there with a sense of privilege that I was from America and the experiences that, that carries. Finding the balance of ‘where’s my place here,’ was a hard adjustment.”

She emphasizes the importance of feeling and acting like a guest in South Africa.

“I was there for five months and I wasn’t traveling around to other places the way you might if you were studying abroad in a place like Europe so I really got to know the country. It’s so important to be respectful of the fact that we are so privileged to be here [Cape Town.]”

When Scott came home in November of 2018, she returned with a new sense of appreciation for everything in her life.

“It’s cliche, but true.”

She experienced the tail-end of a drought that had hit Cape Town. Scott shared a house with other participants of her program. Her showers had to be two minutes and often involved cold water because there would not be enough time for the water to warm up.

Upon coming back to the U.S., Scott assumed she would want to take long hot showers because she would be able to for the first time in so long. 

“I stood there and quickly realized that just because something is available to us, does not mean we need to do that. Just because we have a water supply does not mean we should be wasteful.”

Without realizing or noticing, Scott brought back things she had adapted to in Cape Town with her back home.

International Students who Study on The Hill

Xiaotong Yang ’22

Xiaotong Yang ‘22 is an international student from SuZhou, China studying mathematics and computer science at Denison. 

Olivia Reynolds ’20: Shanghai, China

Olivia majors in East Asian Studies. 

My Journey of 1000 Miles: China 2019

As part of Denison’s Home to the Hill course, students complete a Digital Storytelling Project in which they reflect on their time away from Denison. This past fall the project was expanded to include projects using Shorthand. Olivia has given us permission to share her story, My Journey of 1000 miles: China 2019, with you. You can view her project by clicking the link above. 

Langyi Ye ’20: Turku, Finland

Langyi majors in Educational Studies and Psychology. 

The Moment Seizes Us: Study Abroad in Turku, Finland

As part of Denison’s Home to the Hill course, students complete a Digital Storytelling Project in which they reflect on their time away from Denison. Last spring the project was expanded to include projects using the Scalar book format. Langyi has given us permission to share her story, The Moment Seizes Us: Study Abroad in Turku, Finland, with you. You can view her book by clicking the link above.