How Can We Help Study Abroad Students Better Prepare For Experiences Evoking Strong Emotions?

by Aisling Meade, Programme Manager, EIL Intercultural Learning

How Can We Help Study Abroad Students Better Prepare For Experiences Evoking Strong Emotions?
How Can We Help Study Abroad Students Better Prepare For Experiences Evoking Strong Emotions?

Every year we coordinate a field trip to Belfast for American students in a study abroad program. We arrange for them to meet with various politicians, community workers, and organizations to provide a basic overview of the current situation in Northern Ireland and its culture.

We often arrange for these study abroad groups to attend service at Ian Paisley’s church in Belfast. It offers insight into the community and an opportunity to hear Dr. Paisley preach. Also, it usually results in Dr. Paisley inviting the group to his office for an informal question and answer session. Note, this is in the context of a broad program where views are heard from Catholics and Protestants, Nationalists, Republicans and Unionists.

On one occasion, a student in our group expressed doubts about attending the service. He came from a Irish Catholic background and had been brought up with a strong interest in Ireland, though I think it would be fair to say mostly from one perspective.  As Ian Paisley is widely perceived as the personification of a particular type of unionism, this young man felt that he could not be in the same place as him.

After talking it over with his professor and our coordinator, he decided to attend the service but not meet Ian Paisley face to face. He was visibly affected during the service and when Ian Paisley came to meet the group, he hung back and did not go into the invited question and answer session. Our coordinator stayed with him and they talked a little about the strength of his feelings. The way he expressed it to our coordinator was that he felt it would betray his family.

Talking about this experience afterwards we couldn’t identify how we would have handled the situation differently, yet were left feeling slightly frustrated that the study abroad student missed out on a learning experience and indeed an opportunity to challenge Dr Paisley. Those question and answer sessions get quite robust! Many students from America are not afraid to ask the tough questions.

So I suppose the question this raises for study abroad is what can we do to help students better prepare for experiences which may evoke strong emotions and how can we help them process meetings and events, delivered for educational purposes, which may go against their own family background and long held beliefs.

This post was submitted by Aisling Meade, Programme Manager, EIL Intercultural Learning

Your thoughts and ideas are welcome via the comment section for this article.

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3 thoughts on “How Can We Help Study Abroad Students Better Prepare For Experiences Evoking Strong Emotions?

  1. My parents were Catholics from Ireland, but they felt a strong if limited sympathy for the Protestant Unionists. They certainly wished that Ireland had become a secular Republic, not a state that privileged the Catholic Church or any church. They both fought in the Irish War of Independence but they did not like what the Republic had become and could understand why the Unionists would not want to be part of it.

    When my brother was in Europe in the fifties, he travelled from Scotland to Belfast before proceeding on to the Republic. On the ferry to Belfast he fell in with a group of Orange men. He sang them some traditional Irish tunes, and they taught him their Orange songs. Say what you want about the evils of drink, but the drinking helped them create a jolly cultural interchange. Throughout his life my brother was quite fond of singing those Orange songs. It was a shame that he could not carry a tune, but he had great fun nonetheless.

  2. Hi,

    There was a great point raised in this post, I feel that such educational trips are definitely needed to overcome any mental barriers against other cultures and religions. I think this provides an excellent platform for others to not only learn but also have more knowledge about countries. Thanks for sharing!

  3. I don’t see a better way to understand a culture than by studying abroad. For example, since 9/11 there has been a lot of negativity toward the Muslim world. It is often difficult to get by the fact that only a tiny percentage of radical Muslims cause the problems. So total immersion into the culture seems to be a thorough way to understanding. Studying abroad is one answer to contrasting cultures accepting each other.

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