The pandemic not only prevented students from traveling through the University’s study abroad program, but also inhibited foreign exchange students from coming to Middletown.
During the 2020-2021 academic year, international students had trouble obtaining visas and hesitated to travel due to COVID-19. As a result, the University hosted only one undergraduate exchange student and no foreign language teaching assistants (FLTAs), who are usually graduate students. This semester, there are about 12 FLTAs on campus and four undergraduate exchange students.
While the University hired FLTAs to work remotely for the 2020-2021 academic year, they could not hold as many casual conversations and social events as they usually can. Director of Study Abroad Emily Gorlewski emphasized that FLTAs’ work is integral to foreign language education, maintaining that in-person work allows them to participate more fully in the University’s community.
“This year, they’re able to [work on campus], and they’re in Fisk here,” Gorlewski said. “They have an office up on the third floor, so it’s nice to have them…stopping by or doing their movie nights.”
In addition to being an exchange student from Heidelberg University in Germany, Lena Kruzycki is also providing language instruction as a course assistant for Elementary German. Kruzycki said that her goal is to help students communicate functionally.
“My job is to work on pronunciation and to just get them out of their comfort zone,” Kruzycki said. “You don’t have to have perfect grammar or perfect vocabulary—no, you just have to communicate. That’s what [language is] for, and that’s what I’m trying to show them.”
Kruzycki lives in German Haus and holds weekly conversation sessions for faculty and staff to improve their German skills. Academically, she plans to use this year at the University to find a topic for her bachelor’s thesis in American Studies. She is currently learning about the opioid epidemic in Connecticut cities, including Hartford and New Haven. Kruzycki mentioned that her experiences so far have contradicted some of her previous conceptions about Americans, such as the idea that owning guns is important to most people, but she acknowledged that the University does not represent all of American culture.
“I do have to remind myself again and again that Wesleyan is a bubble,” Kruzycki said.
Kruzycki said she sees immersion and lived experience as essential to studying other cultures.
“I really wanted to finish my bachelor’s degree with an actual experience in the U.S.,” Kruzycki said. “It seems really pretentious to me just to study American Studies and be always from the outside looking in.”
Elena Rodriguez, an exchange student from the University Carlos III in Madrid, Spain studying philosophy, politics, and economics, also believes that experiencing a variety of cultures is an important aspect of education.
“I am a firm believer that social sciences are different in different parts of the world, but also differently taught by different people,” Rodriguez said. “For me, it’s an integral part of my education to know of those different perspectives.”
Rodriguez’s academic program involves frequent travel. She studied at four different Spanish universities for one semester each before coming to the United States for her third year of study. When comparing the coursework at different universities, Rodriguez mentioned that some of the University’s courses are less complex than the ones she took in Spain.
“In all of my economic courses in Spain, I [had] to engage with [a] fairly complex level of calculus and algebra…things that here, I don’t encounter as much,” Rodriguez said. “You would need, I think, more mathematical knowledge to pass an economics course in Spain.”
However, Rodriguez has found that the University’s model is effective in promoting long-term retention of the material.
“The Spanish model is mostly focused on a final exam at the end of the semester, and so it’s not so much about learning as it is completing all the required knowledge,” Rodriguez said. “I think here, through the continuous assessment, you’re constantly being challenged to engage with the material, and so you inevitably learn more things, even if the content may not be as difficult as some of the Spanish courses that I’ve taken.”
Rodriguez was also surprised that her economics course at the University applies economic concepts to real entities, particularly businesses. She said that in Spain, economics courses focus on models, such as those developed by the Chicago school of economic thought, without discussing how these theories relate to companies or to real financial events in general.
Likewise, Kruzycki commented on differences between the University’s teaching style and academics in Germany, saying that students in America interact fairly informally with their professors.
“In Germany, the dynamic between professors and students is a whole different one,” Kruzycki said. “Just walking into office hours to chat with your professor—unimaginable. You don’t do that. Your professor is a very clear and distinct person of authority.”
The students both made some broader observations about cultural differences between the United States and Europe. Kruzycki observed that public transportation systems in America are not as robust as those in Europe, and Americans generally depend more on cars than Germans do. Rodriguez commented that American students sometimes drive in order to avoid walking relatively short distances.
“[It’s] very shocking that people don’t walk here,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t know how many times we have been told that it was crazy to go walking to Aldi [which] is a twenty-minute walk from [the University’s campus].”
Overall, Gorlewski underscored the value of interactions between students from different backgrounds, adding that larger-scale partnerships between universities sometimes grow from exchange student programs.
“The more diversity that we can get on campus, the better,” Gorlewski said. “Professionally, I like to be able to interact with [exchange students’] institutions—our partner institutions. I think it’s a fruitful thing for the University, and [these partnerships] sometimes grow into more than just the exchange program. Sometimes, they’ll have faculty exchanges, or they’ll do research collaborations or…conferences, or things like that, so it’s good to have those connections through the students.”
Rodriguez reiterated that travel has been a meaningful aspect of her education, and that educational styles from different places can shed light on one another.
“I think anyone who has the opportunity should try to visit a different university or a different country while studying,” Rodriguez said. “It’s a very enriching experience.”
Anne Kiely can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.