A Cultured Experience: Seven Principles of Maximizing Research Abroad

Miriam Friedman

Mid-flight airplane turbulence—it’s unpredictable, uncomfortable, but ultimately unavoidable. Yet, once overcome, it fades away into the distant annals of memory. Turbulence sets the tone for a future full of bumps and kicks, one of adventure.

Like turbulence, unanticipated challenges can set research off to a rocky start. Students may choose to travel abroad in hopes of learning a new language, enhancing their résumés, or exploring new territories. However, these goals are not necessarily achievable at the onset. Approaching the adventure with an open mind will be the most useful tool in maximizing the experience. Below are the seven principles of how to accomplish just that.

BE PREPARED

Start by identifying on-the-ground resources. This includes contacting others who have gone to that location before as well as learning about the country’s landscape and culture. Moving to a new place can be both exciting and daunting; establishing realistic expectations prior to arrival will help create a sense of familiarity and comfort. At first, travelers may experience stark cultural differences, but it is always possible to find common ground.

“My pre-trip work was vital to my research, but my cultural and regional knowledge helped me most when it came to living abroad… Developing this knowledge ahead of time is extremely vital in minimizing the risk of offending locals or finding oneself in a problematic position.”
—Justin Vogel ’17 on his experience in the Palestinian Territories

BE OPEN TO CHANGE

Adaptation to a new environment is an opportunity for growth and a broadening of personal perspective. In other countries, research methods often vary significantly from those used in the U.S. Learning through experience is vital. It may be difficult at first, but time will attune your senses to the new environment.

“I learned so much about tropical ecology from just living in it: getting to be woken up by howler monkeys every morning, watching fruit-eating birds descending on trees cooperate in mixed flocks, seeing how dozens of species of epiphytes [plants] will grow on branches of a single huge tree, etc. The experience I had and what I learned from it, is something I could never have anticipated.”
—Zach Smart ’19 on his experience in Pacora, Panama

BE CONFIDENT

Educational systems vary globally. There is no way a mentor can automatically assess how much knowledge each new researcher has. As a result, the establishment of an appropriate workload may fall on the student or intern. Assert a strong desire work to learn, but do not be afraid to ask for help when a task seems too great.

“One of the most difficult challenges is that people know you aren’t there for long, so they won’t invest as much in you. Make them. Let them know you are capable and devoted.”
—Penina Kreiger, 2017, on her experience in Melbourne, Australia

REACH OUT

Get involved in the community. Email, call, or speak in-person to potential mentors and peers. Regardless of whether your research is at a standstill or on the brink of a breakthrough, it is never too early or too late to broaden your network of contacts. Get in touch with anyone who may be of help, academics who study similar subjects, or those who just seem plain interesting.

“The opportunities I had were only made possible because I reached out to a respected professor. There are incredible experiences available at your fingertips, but you would never know unless you asked.”
—Alec Getraer ’19 on her experience in Gorangosa, Mozambique

JOURNAL/CATALOG

Travel is one of the best reasons to pick up the habit of journaling. Journaling makes it possible to mark and remember the host of adventures that accompany researching abroad. It is a great way to compartmentalize and detox from the day, to ponder an event, or to serve as a reminder of the experience for years to come.

“I got to track how my attitudes towards something I’m passionate about differ in a different country, and how activists in that country are asking for change… I could see how important these movements are and I felt part of them.”
—Jillian Silbert ’18 on her experience in Buenos Aires, Argentina

KNOW THAT SETBACKS ARE NORMAL

Remember that amazing breakthroughs will not happen every day. There will be ups and downs along the road, but expecting some setbacks will help keep discouragement away.

“The work environment in other cultures is much more relaxed. Every day will not necessarily be exciting, but that does not mean it will not be meaningful. Try to work towards a positive goal and then even the more boring days will seem meaningful.”
—Ben Wolfson ’17 on his experience in Smolensk, Russia

WELCOME OPPORTUNITY

It is impossible to predict the full gamut of opportunities that will emerge while abroad. Unexpected adventures are perhaps the most rewarding parts of researching abroad. Make prudent decisions, but do not be afraid to take risks. Years from now, the missed opportunities will be regretted more than those taken. With readiness to conquer the experience, anything is possible.

“Research abroad opens you up to unplanned experiences with the individuals directly affected by whatever issue you’re studying, which is valuable no matter what topic it concerns.”
—Maya Aranoff ’19 on her experience in Istanbul, Turkey


Though separated by thousands of miles, researchers across the globe are united by a shared experience. This interconnectedness can lead to the development of character in unforeseen ways. Traveling internationally gives rise to the creation of a global network, a forging of connections. Imbibing a different set of cultural values is not always easy, but it is always rewarding, with benefits that extend beyond the anticipated. A rocky start can sometimes mean an unpredictable yet bright future. No matter how long the turbulence lasts, know that at the end you have experienced something unique and arrived somewhere new, somewhere great.

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