Ethnographic interpretation of cultural immersion in study abroad programs
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Large and small institutions of higher education across the US are allocating increasing resources to promote study abroad (SA) and international education, and more American college students go abroad every year. Using a socio-cultural theoretical perspective, this year-long study examined how four groups of US undergraduates experienced and made sense of their cultural and linguistic immersion as part of a SA program sponsored by a US state university and located in two Spanish coastal cities. Employing an ethnographic case study approach, data consisted of a) semi-structured interviews with case study student participants as well as SA professors, SA program staff, and local community members; b) class observations; c) participant observations; d) and written material related to the SA program and context, including case study students’ academic artifacts and personal journals. Additionally, retrospective interviews were conducted with case study students and local community members after the end of the sojourn abroad. The major finding of this study are summarized as follows: 1) SA students went through significantly different socio-cognitive experiences and processes abroad that were determined by an interface of context, social practices, and individual agency; 2) Racial and ethnic identity, class, and gender played a crucial role in case study students’ interactions and experiences with the host community, and affected their opportunities for language and culture learning; 3) The spread of globalization, capitalism, and the global supermarket affected the way case study students viewed SA, including the academic component of the program; 4) Case study students’ various forms and interpretations of cultural immersion and language socialization abroad were often conflictive and a site of struggle; 5) Case study students’ cultural artifacts and expectations inexorably clashed abroad; 6) Case study students tended to retreat into a feeling of nationalsuperiority when faced with cultural conflicts and misunderstandings, or episodes of antagonism against the US and the American people, while their engagement in local communities gradually eclipsed.