Your First Two Months Will Define Your Study Abroad Experience

I remember the surreal exhilaration as I took that first step onto Danish soil.  Even as a veteran traveler I still couldn’t help but feel a bit like Neil Armstrong as he stepped out from the Lunar Lander into the unknown.  For me, it was the start of a two-year full degree program at the University of Copenhagen and a radical change from my lifestyle over the previous three years spent working 9-5 in the mergers and acquisitions industry. I was incredibly excited but also positively terrified. Living it at the time was a bit overwhelming but, as I look back, it was one of the best experiences of my life.  It was also a major learning lesson where I made mis-steps and could have done some things better. Overall though, I made a lot of great decisions and have relatively few regrets.

Danish National Museum in Copenhagen

Over the past few years I’ve worked with a lot of international students who have been engaged in a variety of different programs which range from semester exchanges to multi-year full degree programs.  In so doing I’ve noticed a couple of trends which are deeply ingrained in human behavior which can do a lot to shape how much you get out of your international study experience. Chief among these is tied to your behavior during the early-arrival period and how you form your daily routines.

Men, It Is Long Past Time to Study Abroad

The Scottish Perch

Despite these massive surges in the number of students studying abroad, it turns out the majority of western exchange students are women. This has left educators and study abroad students alike asking themselves, “Where are the men?”

The study abroad population is increasing rapidly. Over the past ten years the number of students studying abroad has nearly doubled. In 1996‐7 there were 99,448 US undergrads studying abroad. Fourteen years later, in 2011, that number grew to 273,996; almost three times the amount. Meanwhile, the ERASMUS (European) exchange program increased from 144,037 students in 2004-5 to 252,827 for the 2011-12 academic year; almost doubling over a seven-year period.

Existing research has found that roughly two thirds of American exchange students are female, while data for Europe indicates that on average, 65% of the study abroad population is comprised of women. In some countries, such as Romania and Poland, 71% and 68% respectively of exchange students are female (These figures and others are explored in-depth in my Master’s thesis).

While this should concern everyone, it should be especially disconcerting for men as it means that a huge slice of the male population is missing out on the life and perspective-changing experiences that come from study abroad.  In our global economy, men that fail to study abroad will be significantly less competitive than their female counterparts and they will make decisions based on a highly limited world view.

What I find concerning is just how little specialized information is available for men.  We have developed a western cultural narrative that assumes that travel is inherently more dangerous and challenging for women, and that as a result it is women that need to be the primary focus and recipients of the resources dedicated to encouraging young people to travel. While I whole-heartedly embrace resources that support and inspire young women to travel I also know that young men have been neglected. In our rush to enable and empower young women we have overlooked and failed to address the very real needs of young men.  As a result their significant fears have not been addressed,  and the special set of challenges they face have been ignored or dismissed as insignificant.

1. Men, it’s time to admit we are afraid

Western society has clear rules for what it expects from males.  Machismo/masculine culture is drilled into us from before we can walk.  To be a man it is essential that we be strong, resilient, independent, and self sufficient. We’re told on a daily basis, “Man up“, “Get things done“, “Don’t be a sissy“, and  “It’ll be fine, just rub some dirt on it“.   A failure to do so not only feels like an internal failing, but quite often has very real social costs among our peers and with women.  For many of us, we learn at an early age that it is better to feign apathy than admit that we need help.  Admitting fear is acceptable, kinda, but only if it’s delivered in combination with arrogance and mastery.  While these cultural norms provide men with a set of skills and an internal drive that can be a huge asset, it also opens us up to a lot of harm and missed opportunities. We go to the doctor less, we act out to distract people from things that make us uncomfortable, we fail to ask questions in class, and in the case of study abroad – we scrap, delay, or abandon exploring study abroad all together. There are some great resources out there dedicated to facilitating improved conversation in this area and improving cross-gender discussions when it comes to how to interact. One is The Good Men Project, which has awesome posts like “Why We as Women Need to Ease Up On Men,” and “What If He Cries?” but these projects are few and far between with little-to-no tie to travel or study abroad.

Over the past decade I’ve struggled with overcoming my own fears, embracing the study abroad experience, traveling independently, and simultaneously been involved in encouraging more people to study and go abroad.  As I reflect on the conversations I had in the lead-up to both my six week summer study abroad trip in 2004 and the two-year full degree Master’s program I recently completed in Denmark, I find myself confident that one of the primary reasons there are so few of us studying abroad is because … it is scary.

The risk of lost social capital is significant, and there are virtually no resources available for men to help us address our fears. If you google, “Is it dangerous for men to travel alone?” of the 10 results on the first page, three are gender neutral, and seven are for women despite the search terms used. Similarly, when reading up on solo travel and travel in general, guides are written in gender neutral language or almost exclusively for female travelers. A prime example of this is the BBC’s recent piece “Should women avoid solo travel?.” This is a fantastic piece but, it drives home the point that there is a massive void when it comes to resources for men. Simply put, it implies a culture where men are the dominant travelers and can take care of themselves. While this is deeply ingrained in virtually all of us, myself included, this is a myth.

The reality is that we are every bit as scared of studying abroad as women.  In some cases even more so, because we lack outlets to ask questions and to get re-assurance that our fears are acceptable and common place.  Preparing for and embarking on a study abroad or solo travel trip is something that inherently relies on seeking out exterior information.  You need to find resources, do your research, and ask questions so you know what to expect. This involves admitting what you don’t know, and accepting that you have a bag full of rational and irrational fears that must be addressed.  It is informative to watch men’s faces during a study abroad information session and the look of muted relief that sweeps over them when one of the guys finally steps forward and asks a question they’ve all been itching to know, but were afraid to ask; to risk being judged harshly or appearing overly soft.

We also have to accept and work to improve the support network available to most young men.  While many women are able to share their fears and uncertainties about study abroad with family and friends, it is often a much more guarded discussion for men. Relatively simple things such as a fear of foreign foods, or having to navigate and use buses, trains and planes, are often the types of topics that many men will only discuss with their closest friends at the end of a long night full of beer.

It is important that young men understand that there is nothing shameful about these fears. We do not have to be completely self-sufficient. We can admit our uncertainty.  The alternative is that we find excuses, miss deadlines, or dismiss study abroad as something that we don’t have time for leading us to miss out on an incredibly important life experience.   Those organizing and running study abroad programs must become more pro-active in their efforts to reach and engage young men while realizing that the stoic and self-reliant mask they present covers a boiling mass of uncertainty and layers upon layers of rationalizations and excuses.

2. Added dangers exist for men

Study abroad and solo travel are, in general, extremely safe.  In reality they are often far safer than an identical period of time spent at home, especially if you’re from a major metropolitan area.  That being said, there are some added concerns that are worth being mindful of, particularly because study abroad and solo travel usually include large amounts of alcohol and bar culture. When discussing study abroad and solo travel safety, the present discussion revolves almost entirely around women’s safety and risk of kidnapping and rape.  While these concerns are extremely relevant and valuable, the temptation to assume that men have it easy is misleading and a disservice to the discussion.

One area that is rarely discussed, but much on the minds of young men, is the threat of fights while abroad.  I suspect that this is due in part because our cultural ‘mancode’ dictates that a man that is involved in a fight and loses will be eager to keep the details to himself, while a man that is involved in a fight and wins will be automatically assumed to be the aggressor and somehow responsible for the fight. This places men in a difficult no-win position, and one which encourages silence and the avoidance of the topic all together similar to what researchers have documented when exploring the reporting of domestic violence.

I’m a tall guy, and while that often works to my advantage in discouraging confrontation, it also makes me a target. Despite that, I’ve never been engaged in a direct confrontation that escalated beyond a push or two while living and traveling in more than 40 countries.  That being said, small confrontations and the threat of violence are a relatively normal part of a night out and/or bar culture. While I’ve managed to avoid major conflicts, the sight of guys at hostels sporting a black eye or bruised lip isn’t exactly an uncommon one.  While I think these incidents are less common while studying abroad than at home, men face a significantly increased risk of being assaulted compared to their female counterparts.  This risk is compounded dramatically in social and club situations where men are expected to serve as a buffer and safe zone for their female counterparts when they find they’re tired of dancing, talking to a guy, or want a break.

The risk of sexual assault and of getting drugged, while dramatically reduced compared to women, is still present and a very real risk. I know numerous men who have been drugged for a variety of reasons which ranged from exploitation, to robbery, to sexual assault, and perhaps most commonly, by other men interested in removing competition. While, thankfully, I have never experienced any of those, I have been aggressively grabbed and groped by both men and women more often than I care to recall.

Again, I want to reiterate that most of these threats are the same exact threats we would face and experience in bars in our home cities.  As someone who did my undergraduate program in Phoenix, Arizona, I find that most of my time spent studying/living/traveling abroad is dramatically safer. But, if we want more men to study abroad, we need to discuss these risks and threats in the same way we treat those posed to women.

3. Study abroad – Not just hookups and adventure sports

We live in a media culture that has made the study abroad experience the near exclusive domain of romantic comedies and chick flicks.  From an early age women grow up on stories depicting deeply charming and romantic travel experiences in far off and exotic places.  They are encouraged to see study abroad as an opportunity to seek love, to enjoy incredible food, and to immerse themselves in art, music, and culture.

For heterosexual men the cultural message is far less engaging and not nearly as compelling.  While there are messages to go abroad these often depict men already settled into their careers.  Other alternatives tell us that travel internationally should revolve around sex with exotic internationals (eg: Eurotrip) or the pursuit of adrenaline-fueled activities such as skydiving, bungee jumping, and downhill snowboarding (which are hardly study-centric activities).

The message we get is fairly clear:  Study abroad is only kinda, sorta, maybe for men and even then only high-testosterone adrenaline addicts or head-in-the-clouds whimsical lit-nerds. Those messages are complete and absolute pigswill.  Study abroad is for everyone. Seriously. Everyone.

4. It won’t jeopardize your career

As men, we experience a significant amount of familial and cultural pressure to start our careers and to focus on career-related activities from day one.  Travel is conveyed as something to be done after we complete our studies and succeed. For those with a passion for travel, it is implied that we should find a career that includes large amounts of business travel and use it as our platform for discovering the world.

Again, this is grossly inaccurate and something that is starting to change. Already employers report that they are looking for candidates that have international experience and have studied or traveled abroad over an extended period of time.  This is because they feel that those who have tend to be more adaptable, flexible, able to live effectively in a variety of cultural contexts. In many ways, study abroad is becoming an essential component of the undergraduate experience – on par with taking on a student internship.  It teaches many of the same skills, while also honing a student’s self confidence, independence, and global perspective.  Study abroad matures individuals and builds improved resilience and character while diversifying the student’s world view.

Where many men have historically bypassed study abroad out of financial concerns, or fear of lost opportunities to network or add work experience to their resumes, employers are increasingly viewing study abroad as a key sign of employability.  So, while this in no way means that young men should choose study abroad in place of an internship or career development opportunity, the two should be explored in tandem.  Outdated perceptions that study abroad was a sign of a student escaping from academic work, or taking an academic vacation are now out of date and have largely been abandoned. So much so that we are starting to see many university programs incorporating mandatory exchange periods as part of their curriculum.

Long story short: Men, if you don’t want to blow your future, it’s time to study abroad.

5. Socializing isn’t easy

Depending on where you sit on the nature/nurture debate you can attribute men’s social behaviors to a variety of different sources. Regardless, at the end of the day we tend to be less social than our female counterparts.  This can make establishing new social networks and connections particularly challenging and nerve-wracking when debating the prospect of study abroad.

If you are shy and one of the primary things holding you back is a fear that you won’t be able to make new friends during your exchange, don’t worry.  Travel is an incredible tool for breaking out of your shell and developing new friendships and conversational abilities.  Even if you suffer brutal social anxiety, the opportunity to experiment, explore, and reach out to a peer group of students who are in the same boat, and locals who are deeply curious about where you are from and why you chose their city, is invaluable.

As men we need to be honest with ourselves, accept that we’re not all natural athletes looking to join sports clubs or die-hard Magic the Gathering gamers. We have to accept that socializing while abroad is a huge fear for many guys as they consider taking a trip and re-affirm that while it won’t be easy, it won’t be as difficult or brutally uncomfortable as we might fear. Sure, there will be nights spent alone on Facebook, but far more often you’ll have a group of fellow exchange students with much more in common with you than a group of people 100 times the size back home.

6. Parental support

In conversations with female friends it has become apparent to me that the playing field isn’t equal when it comes to parental support for travel and study abroad. While the student need and benefit from study abroad is equal regardless of gender, there are far too many cases where financial and social support from parents is decidedly lopsided.  While I’ve been very lucky and had folks that prioritized travel, I have many peers who have found that where their parents were willing to support and pay for their daughters to study abroad, there were decidedly different levels of support and social pressures placed on their sons.  It’s impossible to know how much of this stems from cultural norms and expectations that young men should be able to support and provide for themselves, and how much of it is simply based in young women being more vocal about how important study abroad is to them.  I’m in no way implying or seeking to lessen the efforts of the countless women who go about researching, pursuing, and financing their study abroad all on their own.  I’m simply noting observations I’ve had shared by men and women alike, that while women often have to make a stronger case for their safety when seeking parental support, that support, particularly financially, tends to be more available for women than men.

7. The money is out there

Unfortunately, study abroad isn’t cheap.  While every penny invested is 100% worth it, it’s true that a solo trip done on the cheap can run you about half the cost of a study abroad exchange.  Of course, the tradeoff is that you don’t receive the academic credits, and you miss out on opportunities for scholarships, grants, and funding. When weighing the options available to you, you should keep in mind that because study abroad is typically based in one or two centralized locations you will get a much better feeling for the community and culture as opposed to typical budget travel which covers 10-15 times as many destinations. Also consider that each type of study abroad is different, just as study abroad and general travel are different.  For added discussion on the topic see my post exploring long vs. short term study abroad here.

Lastly, it is extremely important that men be pro-active in pursuing scholarships, tuition waivers, and financial aid for study abroad opportunities.  While this is more relevant for American, Canadian, British and Australian readers, it is equally relevant for European readers who may seek to supplement the ERASMUS fee.  There are a wealth of resources available to help you make your study abroad experience possible, you will just need to seek them out and be pro-active in asking for the funds.  Again, this all comes down to asking for help often, and in a wide variety of places.

Final thoughts

Recent growth in study abroad is exciting and representative of how the world is changing as new technologies continue to reduce costs, bridge communication barriers, and provide new opportunities for self discovery and exploration.   Men benefit immensely from the study abroad experience. More than that though, it is of the utmost importance that we strive for relative equal representation within the study abroad community because both genders have so much to contribute. The chance to explore the world, cultures, and foods as part of a group not only creates a more well-rounded exchange experience, it provides a significantly safer one.

As we push forward, it is important that we all do our part to re-frame the discussion surrounding men, study abroad, and independent travel.  The challenges young men face are not limited to their own decisions and experiences. They are representative of the sum of the cultural messages and resources that shape the study abroad environment. It is up to all of us to help create a more supportive and transparent dialogue that helps young men feel comfortable and capable when exploring study abroad options.

We also need to change the way we handle and discuss these types of posts. In researching this post, I discussed the topic with a number of other male peers and bloggers. Many expressed agreement that the topic needed to be addressed, but felt as though any attempt to do so would immediately be met with aggression, allegations of sexism, or seen as an attempt to belittle the challenges and gains women have made in higher education and study abroad over the past few decades. This is not my intention and I know there are large groups of women who are every bit as concerned by the gender gap as I am and working doggedly to help bridge it. Still, I publish this post with some apprehension.

It would be fantastic if men who have made the jump and chosen to study abroad or embark on a solo travel trip would share some of their own stories, their experiences, and their fears in bridging the gap between the concept of going abroad and the reality of making it happen.

 

Two Years Away – My First Visit Back to Arizona

Self Portrait - Colorado Rockies

With my Master’s thesis handed in and the clock ticking down on my time as a student, I finally set aside the funds to return to Arizona. It seemed like a perfect opportunity.  My schedule was largely open, consumed only by applying for jobs and PhD positions here in Denmark.  My brother, the author of davidberger.net, who has spent the last 26 months in Africa with the US Peace Corps was scheduled to return to Arizona for his month and a half long home leave.  His home leave marks the 2 year mark in his service, and he’s currently scheduled to return to Zambia for a one year extension which made this my only opportunity to see him and my folks together for at least another year.

The plan was simple.  Return home and spend time together as a family.  While we all Skype multiple times a week, it would be the first time any of us saw each other since last year when we spent a month together in Zambia. As the date approached, David and I chatted in mixed tones of excitement and trepidation.  Would we experience homesickness? How strong would the reverse culture shock be?  Would we suddenly feel a sense of regret or second guess our decision to not only go abroad, but to stay abroad for so long?

Since many of you have asked about my experience, what I saw, what I felt, and my thought process, this post will be a rolling explanation that seeks to shed insights into these questions.

General observations

Sense of Noise – One of the interesting shifts was just how “loud” things seemed when I returned to the US.  Living in Denmark for the last two years my ears and brain have re-focused their filter from only seeking out relevant English words and conversations to filtering out Danish conversations which I only marginally understand.  Those who have traveled may know what I mean – your ear is constantly scanning and suddenly picks-up-on and hones in on English – any English – it hears. It can be a radio station in the background, Danes switching seamlessly to English and then back again, or folks having a conversation in English across the room.  The odd twist is that upon returning to the US and leaving Denmark behind, my brain took a while to slam the old filters back into place. The result was a sense of inundation as my brain tried to pick up and process every English sound and conversation occurring around me.  It made for a very interesting and slightly overwhelming experience.

Native English Speakers – In Denmark I speak English exclusively.  However, that English is international English, which is to say it is simplified English with slightly different emphasis and a significantly reduced pacing than I would use in the states.  My usage of slang is greatly reduced as is the use of highly complex or obtuse words. My day-to-day conversations take place with non-native speakers. Many of these non-native speakers are completely fluent in English and competent.  Yet, to be better understood my use of language while abroad changes. The same has occurred among my fellow American expats so that even when we’re talking to each other our conversations fall somewhere in-between a truly fluent native conversation and an international English conversation.  The result is that my active vocabulary has shrunk by hundreds of words. While this loss of vocabulary and change in pacing is temporary, some parts definitely recover faster than others. Throughout my stay I found myself searching for basic words or frustrated at my inability to draw upon the specific, descriptive word I needed.

Inflation – I was really surprised to see that the cost of everything has gone up $1-2. When living there day-t0-day you don’t tend to notice it.  Having left and returned I was quite shocked to see that things had increased significantly.  Especially when one considers just how low and slow to change the minimum wage is. When I consider the minimum wage in DK vs. Arizona and the prices of things in DK vs. the US, I  am reminded that prices  aren’t nearly as expensive in DK as they initially appear.

Nice vs. Friendly – The Danes, famous for being a bit more reserved, are incredibly kind.  They are truly nice people on average, and once you strike up a conversation they are eager to chat, eager to help, and very curious.  Americans on the other hand live up to our reputation abroad. Folks are just down right friendly.  They’re outgoing and eager to strike up random conversations.  Bored?  Downtime?  Waiting in a line?  You name it, it’s grounds for commentary and social interaction for the duration of the time spent in the same space. As someone raised in that culture, it’s something I really enjoy and miss a little bit while in Denmark.  Luckily, Danes are always more than happy to respond to my prompts for conversation – even if they violate social norms and take them a bit off guard.

Things I Miss

I have a deep seated love for the US, for all it has to offer and even for many of its failings.  While I haven’t felt a strong pang of homesickness during my two years in Denmark, there are definitely things that I really miss. Some of which I didn’t even realize I missed.

Family and Friends  – This is a given, but it still bears repeating.  Spending time back with family and my amazing group of friends was truly a wonderful experience. It is, hands down, the hardest part of being abroad and leaving Arizona behind. That even after two years apart we can come back together for wonderful evenings, conversations, and stories is a true tribute to what a fantastic community I still have back in Arizona.

The Food – I often am greeted with extreme skepticism when I tell people that of all the countries I’ve visited, the US has some of the best food in the world. It does, and Arizona will forever hold a special place in my heart for its amazing Mexican food. You could likely eat Mexican food and its various Americanized variations for every meal, every day, for a week without having  the same style twice.  Of the many things I’ve missed while living in Denmark, good, cheap, filling, grungy Mexican food is one of those that I hanker for most strongly.  Similarly, cheap, amazing, massive steaks from the supermarket, as well as hamburgers.  I’m not talking flowery, pretty, Danish-style hamburgers you eat with a knife and fork.  I’m talking about delicious, sloppy, ugly hamburgers that are packed with flavor and send you into a food coma afterwards. Hamburgers that you eat with your hands until they implode, like flavored fireworks, and are only finished when you lick the leftover juices from your fingers.  I also miss the Chinese buffets, especially a fantastic seafood variation in southeastern Phoenix. For $17 of all-you-can-eat goodness, you can gorge yourself on surprisingly high quality and flavorful crab legs, shrimp, scallops, sushi, frog legs, you name it.

American Friendliness – Americans are awesome. They’re friendly, chipper, positive, optimistic, and love to talk.  Walking into a shop for lunch?  Be prepared, you’ll likely have a total stranger at the door strike up a conversation with you and make suggestions – “The double paddy is massive, go for a single unless you’re sharing!”.   For some foreigners this comes across as insincere, fake or overwhelming.  I don’t find it to be any of those.  For me it’s just down-right friendly.

American Bathrooms – I appreciate that this is more of a matter of building age and logistics, but I don’t care.  American bathrooms are amazing especially in comparison to Danish bathrooms (and European bathrooms in general) which suck.  They usually have more space in them than your average Danish bedroom, have real showers, real tubs, water pressure, and are set up so that you don’t have to spend 20 minutes after every shower squeegeeing everything down, including the damn ceiling.

Western Apartments – Your average student’s apartment in Arizona looks more like a luxury condo here in Denmark.  They are large, often recently renovated, with lots of room, decent furnishings, and loads of amenities. It’s the little things like full-sized refrigerators, in-house washer and dryer, and walk-in closets that really make a difference.  The friend’s apartment I stayed in was a beautiful, if normal, two-bedroom, two-bath student apartment in central Phoenix. The complex was fairly new and tailored to students with cheap rent, in a neighborhood that was being gentrified.  His rent was less than I pay for a single, shared room, with four people co-sharing a single bathroom in Denmark.

Good Ol’ American Bars – There’s something deeply charming about various types of American bars.  I really enjoyed some of the funky bars we ended up in.  One in particular that comes to mind was a VERY stereotypical country bar in Durango.  My brother and I stuck out like sore thumbs, but thoroughly enjoyed grabbing a drink while listening to great live music as folks did the country-two step on the dance floor. It was lots of fun, and as you might imagine there were cowboy hats and boots a-plenty to be found.

American Retail – American retail is amazing. It is incredible just how much high quality stuff is at your finger tips.  Even more incredible is that should you not find it or not like the price in one of the sprawling warehouse-like stores, you can hop online and order it from groups like Amazon and Newegg.  One of the things I miss the most while in Copenhagen is Amazon. I can still order from the UK or German versions but it just isn’t the same and the pricing is nowhere near as competitive.  I was, however, very disappointed at how much service quality and consistency has dropped.  I used a NET10 pre-paid wireless plan during my trip in the US and it was dreadful…as in borderline scam-bad.  Their customer service was some of the worst I’ve seen in years.  My brother also ordered a new laptop from TigerDirect.  The folks at TigerDirect seem to, at best, be having major quality control issues and at worst to be running a shipping scam.  The laptop he ordered arrived missing 4gb of RAM and the processor speed had been misleadingly listed on their website. Their response?  “oops” we’ll send you the RAM and you can figure out how to install it yourself OR refund the entire computer. Take it or leave it.  No interest in making the situation right.  Talk about disappointing. My other main frustration was dealing with Apple which continues to pump out defective products and which was more than happy to agree that the hardware they’d given me was failing and inferior, but unwilling to do anything about it.

Things I Don’t Miss

Fake Patriotism – Sticking an American flag bumper sticker on your car automatically serves as a justification to say and/or hold whatever idiotic or intolerant view that is your personal flavor of the month.  It is the sentiment that doing whatever you want, to whomever you want, is acceptable so long as it isn’t happening to you. When they are reminded that their rights only stretch to the point where they infringe on another’s, they automatically claim oppression.

The Number of Grossly Unhealthy People – This doesn’t really need clarification. A trip to a local super market typically means you’ll risk getting run over by a small army of heavily- laden scooters with folks suffering from extreme obesity and sipping on a 64 oz “diet” big gulp.  This is a stark contrast to Copenhagen (perhaps not Denmark at large) where the mere nature of the day-to-day lifestyle encourages a very fit and comparatively slim population.  Which is not to say that there are not a fair number of heavier folks, but that number and the scope is dramatically reduced.

In-Your-Face Christianity – You would think that with an astounding majority of the population being one flavor of Christian or another that everyone would just chill out. Not so. It seems like everyone and their sister is in a competition for who can be the more visible (not better) Christian.  I suppose in the US your particular version of Christianity is as much a part of your socio-identity as your job and the car you drive.  The number of ridiculous bumper stickers, flyers, handouts, corner preachers, and times folks mention religious stuff in conversations is mind numbing. Every fourth conversation seems to include at least one reference to being a “God-fearing Christian”, “going to church every Sunday” or being a “good Christian girl”.  The Danes have a state religion and state church and while it is true that they are also one of the most atheistic countries on earth, Danish Christians are MUCH more relaxed about it. It’s something private that they do; it is a personal relationship with their church and god. Not a method for self promotion and advertisement. I definitely do NOT miss the US bumper-sticker Christians.

Religious Fanatics – Tough fact. The US has a high number of religious fanatics.  It is, perhaps, the most fundamentalist Christian nation among the western cultures.  With the high number of religious fundamentalists and fanatics comes all of the negatives that we much more easily and readily identify in other cultures and faiths.  Unfortunately, it’s something that is largely ignored by the American population and/or not realized.  They are also nearly untouchable as it has become unacceptable to critique or challenge issues that folks claim are faith-based or parts of their religious identity. The religious extremism in the US is something that deeply saddens me, and which I feel has direct connections to many of the nation’s current woes.

Traffic Jams – Having a 20 minute commute turn into a 50 minute stop-and-go session. Ugh.

The Car – Having a car was great! It adds flexibility and freedom.  That being said, it’s also a royal pain.  I really, really, really missed having a city that was walk-able or which had fantastic public transit where I could hop-on, hop-off, and not have to worry about parking, gas, and all the other complexities that come with driving. It also makes enjoying night life, MUCH simpler and safer.

American Bar Culture – Again, this is one that falls on both sides of the fence.  On the one hand, I love elements of a good ol’ American bar.  On the other hand, I love the relaxed charm and dive-bar (but not) mystique of the Danish bar scene.  People in Danish bars are friendly and approachable.  No one is looking to start a fight. Everyone is fairly in control (even when falling-down drunk) and overall it’s just pleasant and harmless.  In the states too many folks get violent, or just obnoxious. The hyper-sexualized environment makes conversations with strangers, especially members of the opposite sex, more like an argument or fist-fight than a relaxed conversation and the whole thing has a certain shallowness and blah feel to it.  The exception of course is when one goes out with a group of friends and sticks to that group of friends.  It’s an odd mixture, because there are great elements to it like the American friendliness, but at the same time that is countered by how bar culture works and the hyper polarized male-female dynamic.  Say hello to a girl?  She assumes you’re hitting on her.  Even if you are and she’s interested, for the sake of appearances, she needs to put on the image of being proper and not too interested, “slutty, or “easy”.  Meanwhile, she, or others are constantly fishing for a free bar tab to drink on or free drink.  Dancing is far less dancing and far more grinding on each other with the hope of figuring out and perhaps remembering each other’s name. Bleh.  Maybe I’m just getting too old and got it out of my system when I was younger and doing the Scottsdale club circuit. Either way, i’ll stick to my Danish bodegas.

The Struggle – Student life in the US is challenging.  As much because of the academics as everything else that goes with them.  In chatting with and seeing friends who are struggling to deal with the ridiculous amounts of debt they are accruing as part of their education and the criminal medical bills they face in instances where they’ve had medical issues surface, I definitely feel disappointment for how badly the American system is failing them.  After spending the last two years in an environment where higher education is free and comes with a $800 living stipend, and medical costs are mostly covered by the state, I find myself shocked by how appalling, exploitative and counter-productive the American system is.  Not to mention the deep costs on both health and future potential and success which it extracts from American students. While some sense of having to work for it, and earn it is important – what’s occurring in the US these days is tragic and definitely undermines the country’s future prosperity.  It, and the impact it has on people’s emotional state and overall health, is something I definitely do not miss.

The Lack of Consumer Protection – Deregulation in the US has provided increased competition in a few cases, but by and large seems to have just allowed for exploitative monopolies and brutal consumer exploitation.  My US-based retail experiences were, with the exception of an exchange with REI (who were fantastic), extremely frustrating.  Quality control is abysmally low, product quality is hit or miss, and the companies providing these products no longer seem inclined in the slightest to go an extra inch, let alone mile, to make things right.  Their mistake, should you catch it, is almost your fault. Something you should feel guilty about as you force them through the inconvenience (after wasting hours of your time) of correcting the order or servicing the warranty on a defective product.  The US consumer has an amazing number of options available to them, but they’re also getting screwed on a regular basis. Short of trying to make a small stink via social media, most of the old agencies in place to keep retailers in check are now irrelevant or lack their bite.  Something needs to change and soon.

Arizona

Over the final few years I spent in Arizona my contempt for the political, religious, social and intellectual environment in the state grew.  My general level of disgust colored and partially blinded me to the raw naked beauty of Arizona deserts and her diverse terrain.  Even as a more green and water-oriented traveler, the canyons and deserts are gorgeous. Before I left for Denmark, I spent the last few months trying to experience Arizona as a tourist. Those trips were immensely successful and paved the way for this return visit.  While I still have very little interest in returning to Arizona in a long-term capacity, the two+ years spent away did allow me to more accurately enjoy and experience the state’s natural beauty.

When I chose to leave Arizona it was because it embodied many of the woes facing America.  Outside the state’s shining bastions of intellectualism (ASU, UofA, NAU), it is a fetid and intellectually decrepit place.  Conservatives and their religious fundamentalist allies have waged a concerted war on education and science in the state for decades and turned what was once one of the more progressive southern states into one of the least advanced and most regressive. The state has  become the poster child for failed conservative ideology.  Things like school voucher programs and unregulated charter schools have been used to gut comprehensive education, while fundamentalist factions from both the Evangelical and LDS populations have heavily infiltrated the Government and carefully dismantled sound policy.

It’s the type of state where it is common to encounter people who have such a warped understanding of science that they sincerely believe and advocate that the earth is 6,000 years old. It’s the type of state that rages against the “socialism” of funding basic infrastructure repair projects, education, and safety-net programs while having a large portion of the population on medicare or food stamps. The same state that is so perversely corrupt that things like the sale, and lease-back of capitol buildings at outrageous prices is just common place and an every day occurrence. It’s also the type of place that, in the middle of a recession, feels the best use of legislators’ time is to legalize people’s “right” to carry loaded guns into restaurants and bars (now a law of the land) and to try and do the same on college campuses and in college classrooms.

As an expat, when I see an article about one US state or another doing something mind-bogglingly stupid, evil-spirited, or incoherent, it usually turns out that it is Arizona.  From SB1070 to Sheriff Joe’s blatant abuse of the constitution, Arizona is a walking tragedy.  The role of profoundly ignorant fundamentalist Christians cannot be over-emphasized.  Arizona is the state where, just after September 11th, we had a random Sikh shot and killed on the street because he was wearing a turban and believed to be a Muslim. Racial rants targeted at various religious and associated ethnic minorities are common place. The state has boasted the likes of Russell Pearce as President of the State Senate who found widespread support and used his influential position for writing and endorsing bills despite clear ties to white supremacist and neo-nazi groups (to Arizona’s credit Pearce was, eventually, recalled and pulled from office). It is a place where for every well-balanced, moderate Christian who has embraced Christ’s message of love, tolerance, and integrity, there is another that is every bit as radical and fundamentalist as many of the Muslim extremists that are viewed as such a profound threat to the civilized world. They may not be inclined to blow themselves up, but they regularly discuss armed conflict, make veiled threats, and are open to violence on a lesser-if still present scale.

To be clear, this is not to say that there are not wonderful people, and many people who fall at various spots along the spectrum.  During my time in Arizona, I made a number of truly incredible friends. People who are a gift to the world at large, and who  endeavor to better themselves and their companions.  Some are Arizona natives and others are imports.  Many are such a stark contrast to Arizona at large that it is truly shocking. They are some of the greatest minds in the US tackling social, scientific, and moral issues who range from atheists to devoted Christian scholars.  Other friends are individuals whose hearts are in the right place, even if we harbor strong ideological or intellectual differences. Together we challenge and tolerate each other, hopefully constantly growing and learning from each other even though our world views, moral priorities, and intellectual beliefs stand in direct contrast.

Of course, no community is perfect.  There will always be individuals who stand out as the best and worst the community can produce. There will always be political conflicts and ideological differences.  Yet, the more time I spend in the world at large, the more confident I am in saying that an influential segment – perhaps some 20% of the population – is an American incarnation of the Taliban. Their core drive, mentality, and approach to everything from knowledge to women’s rights is similar in approach and end goal even if their path to it is different.  As we’ve seen the world over, when these groups, even if they are only a minority, take control they are able to cripple government and – if they retain control – do lasting societal harm. That is, I fear, the nature of Arizona as it exists today and will continue to be for the next few decades at least. The young population – those who have not been brainwashed at least – are starting to push back and to seek change, but unfortunately, for most of us it makes far more sense to leave upon the completion of our degree. And leave we have. Many of those friends I mentioned previously – some of the state’s best and brightest – have already left. Many of those who remain will leave soon. Of those who do stay, it is often because they are held hostage by a rare job opportunity or a desire to stay close to family.

When I chose to re-locate to Denmark from the US, I felt fairly confident in these conclusions and observations but still retained a certain uncertainty.  My time away, and observations during my recent return, have done away with any lingering doubts. It has provided further perspective and for that I am grateful.

Denmark

Upon touching down in Copenhagen I was tired and stressed out, as my return to Copenhagen marks the beginning of an intense 3-month period where I have to sink-or-swim if I’m to stay on in the country.  I have submitted a number of PhD application and am firing off job applications where I see quality fits.  I stand on the cusp of that point where I have to decide “what comes next” now that the 2-year MA program is winding to a close.

Yet, I was also excited. I’ll return to the US at some point.  That point may be 6 months from now, or it might be 6 years.  Regardless, I’ve truly fallen in love with this city and Danish culture.   If I was to sum my sentiments up all in a word, it is, just quite simply “Civilized”.  Oh, it has its failings.  The Folk Party is the Danish alternative to the Tea Party, full of horrible economic policy and rampant racism. The bureaucratic environment is embarrassingly primitive at times and at others painfully relaxed.  Yet Denmark, and Copenhagen in particular, is amazing.  I think at a certain level I was afraid that my return to the US would suddenly reveal that Denmark wasn’t the wonderful place I had convinced myself that it was.  That it was a sorry alternative to the US and that I’d feel a pang of regret and the draw to return to Arizona. I need not have worried.  There’s a reason that Copenhagen is one of, if not my favorite, city in the world.  It is a wonderful and special place and while I don’t think it will be the right place for me forever. For now, I’m confident that it definitely is where I should be.

For those who read this and are considering relocating or a place to live or study, I highly recommend it. For those of you who know me and have wondered how I’m truly finding it and relating to it – perhaps this post will help you better understand why I am not only here, but intending to stay here for a few years.

As promised, this has been a rambling chain of connected thoughts, but if I missed something or there is another specific you’re curious about that I’ve failed to cover or elaborate on, let me know.  I’d love to elaborate.

Lastly, to all my friends and family who made my return to Arizona and Colorado so lovely and memorable.  Thank you.  I miss you and treasure you.

The Incredible Power of Social Networks Illustrated By Studying, Living and Travelling Abroad

Nyhavn Harbor in Copenhagen


Housing in Copenhagen

When I signed the agreement and notified the University of Copenhagen that I was headed to Denmark I assumed I’d face a lot of challenges upon arrival.  Things like visa issues, language barriers, and a drastic change in weather.  What I didn’t expect was the housing nightmare that greeted me.  I arrived in Copenhagen on July 20th.  Four months later, after aggressively scouring available housing outlets, my search was finally rewarded. On November 29th, I moved into an apartment that should last me for the next 12+ months (and hopefully the remainder of my stay here in Denmark).

It was my well-developed, trans-continental social network that saved me.  Utilizing contacts, new and old, I was able to keep an affordable roof over my head while I undertook an arduous search. Without this  ace in my pocket ,  I would have been camped in hostels and hotels for months, spending an exorbitant amount of money with no room for my luggage. My story illustrates the importance of a social network and what a powerful tool it can be.

United States Based Trip Prep

Between 2004 and 2007 I worked for a commercial real estate company in Phoenix, Arizona.   I worked closely with many brokers and their teams.  In 2007 I left the company to travel Europe for 3 months. When I returned to Arizona, I took a job as an analyst with a business sales, mergers and acquisitions company. I stayed in touch with past colleagues and my social network continued to grow. Fast forward three years.  I informed my boss that I planned to return to school to pursue my Masters and would be moving to Denmark.  While sorry to see me go, he eagerly accessed his mental rolodex for ways to help me with the move.  This is where it starts to get complicated and the obscure beauty and power of a network starts to really come to light.  He recalled that one of the real estate team members who had helped with the purchase of our new building had dated a Danish guy. The head of that team and her boss was an old contact that I happened to also know, independently, through our mutual time spent at my previous job in the commercial real estate company.  In an odd twist of overlapping networks, when the time came to purchase a new building my boss reached out to his friend and contact: the real estate broker from my old company.  Over the course of the purchase and move into our new building, I ended up not only re-connecting with my old real estate contact, but also meeting his team, which included the woman who had dated the Danish guy and I mentioned previously. Whew, confusing right?

Back to my meeting with my boss – on the spot he picked up the phone, called, and made the connection for me.  While no longer dating the Danish guy, she spoke highly of him and because she knew me offered to put me in touch with him.  A few minutes later, I fired off an e-mail with general questions about Denmark, housing, phones, and language barriers.  I continued my trip prep while my new Danish contact responded with great suggestions, and things moved forward.

Copenhagen’s Unexpected Rental Market

After arriving in Copenhagen I realized that not only was it going to take much longer than expected to get my visa, but housing was both more expensive and significantly harder to find than I had assumed.  To be fair, the University had warned that finding housing in Copenhagen was expensive and difficult.  On the flip side, they did just short of nothing to help with the process.

As someone coming from Phoenix, I was met by a whole different world.  In Phoenix we have such a glut of available apartments and housing that you can sign up with an agent for free who will then show you around various apartments.  The agent is compensated by the apartment complex(s) who regularly offer signup bonuses. If that fails there’s more than enough housing from private landlords available.  The search for an apartment seldom lasts more than a week.

In Copenhagen the situation is the exact opposite.  It’s not uncommon for people to search for an apartment for 3-6 months.  Renters sign up on a mixture of free and pay sites to gain access to apartment rental listings.  A listing inside the city proper in the 3,000-4,000 DKK per month ($600-800 USD) rental range typically garners between 80 and 250 e-mails in the first day!  There is also a heavy preference among renters for female and Danish tenants which added an extra layer of difficulty as a male international student.

After my fifth day in the hostel I followed up with the Danish contact I had been introduced to.  Luckily, he had a spare room available for a month before his tenants moved in and he graciously offered to let me use it.  With a huge sigh of relief, I figured I’d be all set. After all, a month is a long time…Right?

As August drew to a close, it became apparent that my visa would not be arriving any time soon and that the one offer which had been made by a “local” dorm, was too far out of town (45 minutes) to justify accepting.

Luckily, here again my network made a huge leap forward. My host reached out to a friend of his who also doubled as his house cleaner.  She was willing to host me for a month or two, but was hesitant as the apartment didn’t have doors for about half the rooms.  A long time hosteler, I mentioned it wasn’t an issue for me. It turned out that she and I got along well.  She was a gracious host and between our busy schedules the shortage of doors in the apartment wasn’t an issue.  I can’t stress how wonderful she was to allow me to invade her apartment like that.  Especially when one considers just how obscure my connection to her was.

Eventually, my visa came through as my hunt for an apartment continued.  I was hampered by my class schedule and the need to use public sources of internet to endlessly scan, and then pounce on room postings.  While I looked at several, nothing came through until I finally had an offer for a room on Amager near campus.  It looked great.  It was a guy and his two dogs.  He smoked but that didn’t seem like it would be an issue.  He was extremely friendly, nice, and happy to help with things.

After a week I was able to move in and started to get settled.  Everything seemed to be going well until it became obvious that we had two extremely different lifestyles that were not compatible. I moved out the next day.  Luckily, the female Danish friend I had been staying with came to me rescue and welcomed me back without so much as a grumble.  We had a good laugh about the mis-adventure and my search began once again with renewed vigor.  Contacts and my emerging network in Copenhagen shared several opportunities with me, but none panned out.  Desperate to be able to unpack/get settled and with the semester coming to a close, I took a new approach. I started offering more than asking rent. It turns out that money trumped being male, and an international. Within a week and a half I had a lead on a place.  It took another two weeks to finalize things before I was able to move in.

Now, I finally have what I hope will be a semi-permanent home for the remainder of my time here in Copenhagen.

It has been an adventure, and to be fair, I could have found a place much quicker had I been willing to live 45+ minutes outside of the city.  As an international student, and someone who has experienced the incredible power of networks, I felt it was extremely important for my immersion, social activity, and overall experience here in Copenhagen to be in or near the University. The cost of commuting was also a key factor. Ultimately the need to be somewhat centrally located has made things more difficult and somewhat more expensive.  In the long run though, it has also been well worth it.

It’s important to note that I only had the opportunity to make that choice, however, because of the incredible help offered to me through my network of friends and contacts.  I owe a lot of these individuals a huge debt of gratitude and their open, helpful, and friendly nature has really inspired me to pay-it-forward and to be mindful of how I can help my friends, contacts, and their extended network.

At the end of the day, I hope this helps you all remember to never, ever, ever, underestimate the power, capability and influence your network can bring to bear.

To all those that helped along the way.  Thank you.

Five Major Differences Between Long-Term and Short-Term Study Abroad Programs

The Round Tower - Copenhagen, Denmark

It sounds simple but if you’re like me, you probably view all study abroad programs as essentially the same, and you probably view most international students similarly as a result.  Hold your horses!  The two are actually vastly different.

I’ve participated in the two extremes of study abroad.  My first introduction was the summer after my Freshman year of College at Arizona State University.  I attended a six and a half week study abroad program through the Barrett Honors College which spent three weeks in London, ten days in Dublin and twelve days in Edinburgh. We traveled, we explored, we took two courses, and it was a great intro to international travel.  In the 7 years since I completed that program I used it, movies, and conversations as a general way of relating to all of the international students I met.  While it helped some, I now realize I made a lot of mistaken assumptions.

Just over three weeks ago I arrived in Copenhagen, Denmark where I’ll be spending the next two years pursuing a masters in Communication and Cognition at the University of Copenhagen. An experience which I’ll be documenting here on VirtualWayfarer.  My formal studies start in less than three weeks and without even beginning the academic portion of the experience I’ve already realized that long-term study abroad and short-term study abroad are vastly different.

To clarify terminology – when I say short-term study abroad I’m talking about trips which last less than 7 months but longer than 5 days.  When I say long-term study abroad I’m including year long programs but mainly focusing on complete degree undergraduate and graduate programs.

Here are five of the key differences:

Preikestolen "The Preacher's Pulpit" - Norway

1. Commitment

As scary and challenging as short-term study abroad programs can be, you never truly have to commit to leaving.  The study abroad trip is an adventure, sometimes a relatively long one, but always experienced with a set perception of your native country as home.  You know that you’ll be going back at the end of that program and even if that program is 6 months long, you’ll always be in a social/passing through phase.  While you may become a participant in the local culture, you’ll never find yourself striving to become a truly active member or to go native.

In a long-term study abroad program you have to go all in.  You’ve committed to something more than just an extended visit and are literally moving to your destination country.  You operate on the realization that in the 1 to 6 years you’ll be gone that everything will change drastically, that you as an individual will be completely different, and that you are re-locating your home.  There is a realization that to not only enjoy, but to survive the experience you have to make an effort to go native.  That you will be changing far more than just where you sleep and study, but also how you eat, how you socialize, and perhaps even some of your core assumptions and values.

Warehouse Row in the Old Harbor - Bergen, Norway

2. Support

One of the best parts about a short-term study abroad program is that almost everything is taken care of for you by the partner schools, program coordinators and chaperones.  You’re told exactly what to do to engage in the process, where to be, and what to expect. Things like housing, transport, and course registration are handled, and most programs have you experience the trip as part of a group of people from your University or home country.  For my first trip this consisted of  two courses taught by faculty from my home University and our group was made almost entirely up of students from Arizona State’s Communication and Honors colleges.

While the experience may vary, I’ve found that long-term study abroad comes with significantly less support.  Especially for international students who are completing entire degree programs.  As a full program international student you’re not engaging in a study abroad program, so much as you are opting to study abroad.  The subtle difference is that while one is a program, the other is standard application and acceptance in a University that just happens to be international.  That means that virtually nothing is taken care of for you, though most Universities offer international programs offices which try and provide some guidance and limited help. At a basic level, however, consider all of the things that go into applying for College or Graduate school as a student attending an out of state school (housing, strange fees, long distance phone calls, different time zones, different banks, paperwork, transcripts, moving your possessions etc.) and then consider doing those internationally across thousands of miles.  Things like visa processing and paperwork, language barriers, international time zones, and vastly different education system structures all come together to create a very challenging and daunting experience.    Believe me, trying to complete the housing and visa process alone with minimal guidance or support is an incredible challenge and one that has left me with more than one sleepless night.

Candy and Scale - Copenhagen, Denmark

3. Different Educational Systems

While most people know this, I don’t think people truly internalize the fact that school systems around the world differ greatly. American educational systems are vastly different than European systems which are completely different than Asian systems.

I mentioned earlier that for my short-term study abroad experience we brought our own teachers with us.  You’ll find that in most short-term study abroad programs the academic coursework and structure remain largely the same as the country of origin.  This makes sense as switching back and forth for a few weeks/month-long program would be messy and confusing.  It also goes back to the experience as a visitor vs. participant/member.

Long-term study abroad programs, however, are done in the local educational system.  Remember – you’re just a regular student who happens to be from abroad.  As a participant this means figuring out and learning vastly different registration, course schedule, course load, teaching style and testing systems.  Even the little things like how course hours are credited can be vastly different.  For example while US schools operate on a credit hour basis, University of Copenhagen and most of Europe uses the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS).

Street Music - Copenhagen, Denmark

4. Social Restart

I mentioned earlier that short-term study abroad programs tend to set you up with, or travel in packs.  Even though you probably didn’t know most of the people before the trip began, you’re put with a group that automatically forms into a new peer group/group of friends. Some will become great friends, some you’ll tolerate because, hey, it’s only a few weeks or months, and one or two you’ll probably absolutely detest.  Ultimately though, this becomes your social network while traveling and fills in for your family and friends back home.

While there is some of this in long-term study abroad the nature of the program makes it significantly more difficult. There’s a huge sensation of loss as you realize that you’re not returning to your regular social group and good friends in a couple of weeks or months, but that it will likely be years. Years during which they may get married, move elsewhere, or change drastically as people.  As a long-term student you also have to effectively start over from ground zero.  One of the biggest frustrations I hear from people who did long-term study abroad programs and had negative experiences was that they never managed to meet new people or establish a new network.   It’s tough, and it takes an active willingness and investment in meeting, connecting, and generating friendships in a way most of us haven’t done actively in close to a decade.

There is no fall-back social group, or core-social group that you can always spend time with or call up to go grab a coffee, see a movie, or grab a beer. That sense of initial isolation is where I’m at right now, and while I feel very positive about the people I am meeting and my ability to build a new social network here in Denmark, it can be rough at times.  A lot of that will also change as the other international students starting my program arrive in town and courses start giving us an easy common thread to network through.  Still, that in and of itself poses another challenge as I know that if I’m going to be here for two years I need to do more than just hang out with other international students. That means going outside of my comfort zone and doing things that are far less comfortable for an international student – it means committing myself to the culture.

I’ve met some great people in the three weeks I’ve been here, and as orientation starts up I know I’ll meet a wealth of new ones. Despite that, it has definitely been a vastly different experience than traditional short-term study abroad.

Dad and I

5. Family

I always wondered how my international friends, roommates, and acquaintances dealt with being away from family. I come from a very close family where my parents, brother and I talk regularly, travel well together, and have an incredible relationship as peers.  For a long-time I wondered what long-term student’s relationships with their families were like that they were comfortable and able to leave their family for years at a time.  I think at a certain level, though I’m a bit ashamed of myself for it, I assumed that their relationships with their families must not have been incredibly close which made it easier to spend time away.  I’m happy to say I had no idea what I was talking about.  Leaving family behind and knowing that visiting and communicating will be much more challenging is easily one of the toughest things about long-term study abroad, but it in no way reflects the strength of the relationships between an international student and their siblings/parents.

As I write this I’m engaged in a two year program which may extend into a PhD and has the potential to lead just as easily to an expat scenario as a return stateside at the end of my two year program.  Two days before I flew over to Denmark my brother flew to Africa with the US Peace Corps for a two year deployment to Zambia.  Moving thousands of miles away, after spending most of our lives less than an hour away from our folks and each other was an incredibly difficult decision. But it was one that was made possible largely BECAUSE of how close our family is.  Their support, encouragement, and constant wisdom made the move a reality.  So, I encourage you all not to make the same mistake I did.

Are you thinking about studying abroad, or have you done a short or long-term program?  I’d love to hear your thoughts, observations and answer any questions you may have!

Moving to Study and Live Abroad: Why I Chose Europe for My Masters Degree

The Old Harbor - Copenhagen, Denmark

If everything goes according to plan with my Visa and class registration I’ll be starting my two year Masters in Communication and Cognition at the University of Copenhagen in just under a Month.  Eager to get settled and begin the culture shock process I jumped the Atlantic and came over a bit early. So far I’ve got two weeks as a Danish resident under my belt and am starting to get my bearings.

While worlds apart I’ve found that the Danes and Arizonans have at least one thing in common.  When I tell them I’ve chosen to re-locate to Copenhagen I always get a quizzical look and the question, “Why Denmark?”.  Most follow the question up with “Why the University of Copenhagen?”, especially when they find out I passed up on an invitation from Georgetown in Washington D.C. to attend.

A lot of factors went into my decision making process and I’ll try and share some of them with you in this post in the hope that they help those of you facing similar decisions and perhaps offer insights into the process for everyone else.

The Application Process

In applying for Graduate programs I knew I didn’t need to return to Grad School. I had a good job, a great resume, decent job security, and a network that allowed me the luxury of turning down several jobs over the course of the recession. Simply put, I missed the academic environment and felt that there was significant potential to improve my social circle, resume, and future prospects with a return to academia.  Especially one that would allow me to work on my existing passions and projects while getting extra credit for them.  I studied lazily for a week for the GRE, took it and operated on the assumption that my resume and body of work would be far more valuable than test scores.  I also knew that the difference between a PhD and a Masters was significant, both in cost and weight so I decided to split my energy between the two.

To select the Schools I’d apply for I made a list of schools that I felt had a very respectable reputation and then pulled up several University lists and rankings.  With these lists in hand I made my way through them making note of the Universities which were in a location I’d be willing to move to and which ranked in the top 50-75 world wide. From there I researched the University’s list of programs and looked for schools with a Communication oriented program or something that would allow me to study social media, virtual worlds, and online education. It is important to note that the one consideration I didn’t take into account was my chances of getting accepted.  I didn’t need to go back, and so as a result the $75 application fee and $15 transcript fee was a small cost to pay for an application and the chance to explore my curiosity.

I was surprised that several of the schools I was most interested in (Harvard, Cambridge) didn’t have any programs remotely connected to the area I wanted to study.  On the opposite end of the spectrum others (Columbia, Edinburgh) had programs focused in my area, but which were taught exclusively online.  Something I wasn’t interested in despite that being one of my central areas of research. I wanted to improve online courses, not struggle through existing ones.

I also felt that it was important that I not fight the language barrier any more than I had to. So, I focused on researching Universities that had English based programs or were based in English speaking countries.  I was surprised at just how many Universities world wide offer courses and programs in English. They’re out there, the trick is finding them.

After doing my research (which took much longer than I expected), I ended up with a list of 8 Universities.  Of those I found 4 PhD programs and 4 Masters programs to apply to. I targeted faculty in the programs I was interested in and sent out a barrage of e-mails asking questions and introducing myself.

Though unorthodox I felt it was worth the effort to apply directly to a few PhD programs as they offered better financial support and would have provided an accelerated program.  Of the 8 Schools I applied to the 4 PhDs were Stanford, Cornell, University of Pennsylvania and University of Washington. The 4 Masters I applied to were Georgetown, University of Copenhagen, Oxford, and a joint program between University of Southern California and the London School of Economics.  Key elements in my application were strong statements of purpose and letters of recommendation, my undergraduate participation in Arizona State’s Barrett, The Honors College w/ Honors Thesis, my professional research and expertise, and my GRE scores which were mediocre with a 530 Math, 590 Verbal and a 5 on the Essay portion.

To make things more challenging I later learned that I had applied during one of, if not the hardest application cycles in the last 50 years.  Ultimately, I received compelling invitations from Georgetown and University of Copenhagen.  Both offered cities and experiences completely different from Arizona, storied histories, and excellent reputations.  However, where Georgetown was only able to offer student loans and $30,000 a year in tuition fees University of Copenhagen offered a complete tuition waiver.  After additional research I also learned that Copenhagen ranked 40th/45th on the lists of Global Universities which was significantly higher than Georgetown. Additionally, the University is a member of the International Alliance of Research Universities which consists of 10 of the world’s leading academic institutions: Cambridge, Oxford, Yale, Australian National University, Berkley, Peking University, National University of Singapore, University of Tokyo, ETH Zurich.

This is when it became real. I wasn’t just enjoying fanciful dreams of applying at the major universities around the world. I was faced with a very compelling opportunity to actually live those dreams and see them brought to reality.  Frankly, it was absolutely terrifying.  That may shock some of you, as a veteran traveler and repeat solo traveler, but the prospect of a trip is vastly different than the prospect of 2 years in a foreign education system, in a alien country. Even the age of the University was mind boggling. University of Copenhagen was founded in 1479 – keep in mind that Columbus didn’t even sail until 1492.

I wasn’t sure if I had the balls to do it. Then I thought through how much I regretted never spending a semester or year abroad during my undergrad, about how incredible the opportunity laid out before me was, and how fear aside it was something I truly wanted to do.  I fired off my letter of acceptance and began researching just what exactly I had signed up for.

The Role of Location and Culture

I moved to Arizona from Colorado when I was six.  I spent the next 18 years of my life in various parts of the state where I lived in Sedona, Prescott, Tempe and Scottsdale.  During that time I spent an additional two years on the road. The first was in place of 5th grade and was a year spent home schooled and backpacking with my parents through Europe. The second was in place of 7th grade and a year spent RVing and home schooled through the US.

The one thing all that time in Arizona taught me was that Arizona and I aren’t kindred spirits. The state has some incredible people, world class natural beauty and a bucket of potential. Unfortunately, it is also dominated by a world view and behavioral culture which is 180 degrees from me.  The state as a whole is anti-education, anti-intellectualism, anti-entrepreneurship, anti-humanism, anti-multiculturalism and the embodiment of what happens when you have 30 years of the GOP party line in action.  As someone who takes a strong humanistic approach to life, values education, curiosity and intellectual pursuits, isn’t religious, values science and history, has a global world view, relishes different cultures and fiscal responsibility Arizona left me miserable.  Outside of my group of friends I found myself surrounded by people who actively embraced and relished in waging war on everything I view as important and essential for progress, sound governance, and a healthy population.

Similarly, Arizona has absolutely zero long-term plan for economic development.  The State has been bleeding all of their top talent for years due to dreadful policies and their short sighted approach to business and education.  The job prospects and opportunities for people 25-45 in the state are nearly non-existent beyond the basic service industries or a job with Intel, and the chances of that changing any time soon in the current environment are non-existent.

So, when it came time to relocate for my Masters I knew I wanted a destination that would provide a community and culture that valued long-term thinking, that took a humanistic approach to life, which had significant potential for professional development and networking, as well as an area that put heavy emphasis on cultural and educational development.

With these criteria in mind the Scandinavian countries immediately jumped to the top of the list.  You’ve probably heard that Denmark (and Scandinavia at large) are some of the happiest countries in the world.  That’s with good reason.  They’ve spent the last 30 years investing heavily in education, infrastructure, health care and innovation while embracing a  humanistic approach to governance and policy.  To a person they are some of the best educated, friendly, helpful and least religious people in the world.

During my 18 day trip to Scandinavia in July of 2010 I was absolutely floored by how helpful, friendly, and genuine the Norwegians and Danes I met were.  Their willingness to have a conversation, answer questions, and to look out for each other was refreshing.  As was the ease I found when seeking out stimulating conversations that were based in well educated, global perspective and insight.  In the three days I spent in Copenhagen during that trip I fell in love with the city and developed an incredible respect for the Danish people.  That feeling and experience has only been magnified over the past two weeks as I’ve gotten settled and worked to navigate the city.

The city itself is a perfect reflection of its people.  With beautiful ancient architecture the city is clean, well laid out, has a great public transportation system, is lined with canals that nearly rival Amsterdam, and is one of the greatest biking cities I’ve ever experienced.  Some 36% of the population commutes to work by bicycle every day. Despite being an ancient city, efforts have been taken to clean up the harbor and river system and the water in the inner harbor is so clean it is safe for swimming.  The coast is decorated by massive wind turbines, and the general feeling is one of an ancient city that is retaining its spirit and essence while charging into the future.

A Global Network

Ultimately one of the biggest resources in life is your social and professional network. It is what drives a successful career, business venture, and makes for a rich and informative personal network.  I developed an incredible network of friends, peers, and professional contacts during my time in Arizona many of whom have since re-located further diversifying the information they can share and the insights they are able to offer.  But, I knew that to truly live the life I want to live I need a network of friends and professional contacts who are truly global and as diverse as the places they were born, educated and raised.  I knew that that by relocating either abroad or to one of the coasts that I’d be exposed to a completely different mixture of people to share, collaborate, relax, learn from and explore with.

The opportunity to live, study, and socialize abroad offers me an chance to develop an entirely new network from the ground up, while maintaining the existing networks I cherish. It provides me the opportunity to radically re-structure the aspects of society I engage with regularly, as well as the cultures, nationalities, and professional backgrounds of my peer group all in a way which wouldn’t have been possible if I stayed in the same region and the same communities I’ve spent the last 20 years in.

So, Why Denmark?

Obviously, there isn’t a simple answer.  We’ll see how I feel about the decision as I start my classes and start to integrate into the local culture and truly see it as a local instead of just a visitor.  That said, it’s amazing to be surrounded by wonderful people who truly seem to understand the importance of charting a path forward, of looking toward the horizon and of embracing new information and relishing it, not trying to quash or discredit it.  I’ll tell you one thing, it sure is nice being surrounded by people who don’t live their lives believing the earth is 6,000 years old and that corporations will always have their best interests at heart.

I’ll be continuing to write on the experiences, revelations, and lessons learned during this adventure so stay tuned. Also, if you’ve got a question you’ve always wondered about or a challenge in your own process don’t hesitate to reach out.

Interested in doing more research? Consider browsing Amazon’s assorted titles on Denmark or Study Abroad.

The Coming Storm: Digital Natives Will Redefine the Nature of Learning and the Future Course of Institutions

The following is a re-production of a document I’ve assembled with my team as part of FusionVirtual’s ongoing push to revolutionize online education.  You can view the whitepaper in .pdf format HERE.   I value your feedback and am eager for a passionate discourse on the topic.  Please do not hesitate to share your thoughts and observations in the form of a comment below or reach out to me on Twitter or by e-mail.

FUSIONVIRTUAL POSITION PAPER

THE COMING STORM: DIGITAL NATIVES WILL REDEFINE THE NATURE OF LEARNING AND THE FUTURE COURSE OF INSTITUTIONS.

ABOUT THIS STUDY

This project is led and coordinated by Alex Berger, the founder and Chief Executive Officer of FusionVirtual. Berger is a digitally-literate, self-directed Millennial with trans-generational experience and perspective. In 2003, he began sharing his insights into the ways institutions have to change to be viable. He shared his extensive knowledge of advancements in information availability, and breakthroughs made by the online gaming community in the use of virtual environments. His honors thesis, Not Just A Game: How On-line Gaming Communities Are Shaping Social Capital, was circulated and verified by many leading educators and business leaders. His blogs and communications on his VirtualWayfarer.com site have kept him at the leading edge of change. He is an accomplished lecturer and delights in sharing his insights into the future.

As one of the most disciplined of the digitally literate, information-age leaders, Berger gathered together educators and business leaders and charged them with helping him focus FusionVirtual’s role in defining not only the future of institutions but, perhaps most important, identifying structural inhibitors to change. He stated that this must be done so leaders know how to make their way in the digital-information age.

INTRODUCTION

“In human history there has never been a time when the difference between generations has been so vast. In the last two decades computer literate, digitally skilled, information-age youth have begun to function in ways never before imagined. They are developing a new operating system for the acquisition and application of knowledge. They are changing our understanding of how things work and how things can be.

The generational differences that divide the past from this new present are so extreme that those with pre-digital, pre-information age mindsets must replace their outmoded literacy with new information. If they do this, they will be able to communicate with their children and function in the world as it is now.”

-E.F. Berger, Ed.D. 2008

This quote from an educational leader may seem extreme to those who have not rethought the foundations of their knowledge and begun their process of reeducation.

Let’s examine an example of significant change: Up until a decade ago – the 1990s – some group, a religion, an institution, or a professor controlled information. Whether it was locked-up by a religious hierarchy, a government, or an institution of higher education, it was controlled and doled out to those deemed worthy. Within what can be described as an instant in human time, through the Internet, information of all types became available to anyone with basic computer skills. As technology has advanced institutions and individuals have quickly begun to forfeit sole access and control. Those institutions or governments that try to limit what their subjects can know are fighting a losing battle for control. While the degree of their success varies widely, they will destroy the lives of countless people before they learn that regardless of the actions they take, they are delaying the inevitable. The reality of complete control is dead and has been replaced by the myth of absolute control.

This one major change in what and how we can learn has shaken institutions and governments to their roots. Institutions up to this time were able to control the way people thought by limiting their access to information or setting themselves up as authorities due to their privileged access to “truth.” Although many institutions continue to function as if they have exclusive rights to information, their death-knells are too loud to ignore.

Higher educational systems everywhere are institutions unable to continue as designed. All are based upon one-way communication. Even those few that attempt to be interactive still rely on conveying information that is limited to the knowledge and intent of the tellers and the curricula. Digitally literate individuals cannot – will not – function in these outmoded schools. Learning has jumped over the barriers of past practices and a whole new threshold of knowledge has been crossed.

Epistemology is being redefined. Credits, degrees and measures of academic mastery no longer have the same meaning because the information they were based on has been shown to be too limited or skewed.

NOTE: The ways modern generations are able to communicate have increased as never imagined. The effects of web technology on social inter-relationships have perhaps more impact on society than the changes brought about by the invention of the telephone at the beginning of the last century. In a future position paper we will address the schism this has created between generations and identify ways for leaders to bring their organizations into the Communication Age.

THE MASTERY OF FOUNDATIONAL SKILLS IS ABSOLUTELY REQUIRED

The training aspects of schooling focus on essential skills which must be mastered. Most of these skills are developed in the early or elementary grades. However, training aspects are part of every level of learning. For example, the skills needed to access, analyze and apply law precedents are not taught in elementary school. They are part of the ongoing study of law. Training and mastery of skills is the key factor in the use of knowledge. Information without the learned skill sets necessary to analyze and evaluate the authenticity of data is useless.

Upcoming generations of learners must be encouraged to explore tasks – learning to read, write, and compute, using the scientific method, plumbing a house, building a device, preparing a meal, and so forth. With the mastery of foundation skills they have an unlimited ability to access knowledge that will allow them to gather and combine sources of information and apply what they have learned to solve problems or gain greater understanding.

We can access information far beyond what the brightest minds could access only a decade ago. To do that, the educational institutions must ensure student mastery of foundation skills, ensure self-direction through self-discipline, and inculcate ‘universal’ social and cultural values. For example, in the US, this is known as “Americanization.”

Dr. Mark Jacobs, Dean of the Barrett Honor College at Arizona State University, stresses that true education must be interactive. We agree. We clarify this concept by adding that reading a book and answering the questions at the end of a chapter may help one pass a test, but only through active discussion and practical application, where learners must demonstrate their ability to turn the concept in their heads and apply it to other situations, does true education take place. Berger’s point of view is that listening to a ‘teller’, reading a book, viewing a PowerPoint, or going through copious information on the Internet and then “passing the course” by answering questions is not the way education works best. What works is the interaction between students and teachers, students and students, students and research resources, and students and scholars from anywhere they can be found, within set parameters that require the application of all that information to real problems and situations.

THE CHALLENGE

One might assume that institutional changes are so obviously necessary that those in leadership positions will redirect their organizations to serve the new types of learners. In fact, many leading institutions have begun to make necessary changes. Whole bodies of knowledge once controlled by academic institutions which, in essence, charged for the selective release or access to this information, are available to anyone through the Internet. Many institutions of higher learning are examining the use of virtual space and avatars to enhance educational opportunities.

Increased access to once carefully protected research and knowledge has resulted in combinations of data that was previously impossible. The economics of this type of change is of great concern. If a university cannot charge for access to information or access to those who have spent their lives researching new insights, then what can they charge students for? What is their role?

THERE IS NO PLACE TO STAND AND VIEW OUR SYSTEMS WITHOUT PRECONCEIVED NOTIONS AND BIAS. WE MUST SEE THE BIG PICTURE

To bring about the changes that will make systems and institutions viable, leaders and those who deliver the services must stand back and rethink and often redefine the structures they work within. In education that is very difficult. The conglomerate institution called education is vast, petrified by administrative facility, and peopled by workers who are reluctant to change. Political influences add to the dysfunctional aspects of schools. A century or more of habit, custom and self-protection supports an argument that, “It was good enough for me, it’s good enough for them.”

Some argue that the seeds of a nation’s destruction are within it. This is especially true of a nation that depends on a trained and educated populace. It is no surprise that in the U.S. those areas that are most regressive are the regions with skewed educational standards and inflexible religious strictures.

To assume that any amount of credible information will bring about change is naive. Many institutions and systems must be bypassed. Unable to deliver what is required, they will wither and die. It is no surprise that the largest competitor to traditional public and private universities are online higher education programs like the University of Phoenix. And it is not difficult to project that as these online, two- dimensional schools are not interactive, they have short life spans due to the lack of quality of their products.

This is a time of change. Those who do not identify their product and the nature of the students they work with, as well as the availability of information and the skills necessary to deal with it, not only kill their institutions, but severely damage the Nation. We must adapt and utilize a worldwide scope of knowledge. We must prepare students to interactively process, evaluate, and make a contribution by applying their knowledge.

INSTITUTIONAL CHANGE AND AMERICAN EDUCATION

There are phenomenal numbers of critiques of America’s schools. Few of these articles differentiate between elementary, middle, high school, and college, (although colleges are more often treated separately). Most articles reference schools as if they were all doing the same thing and need the same fix to be effective. Most fail to offer solutions along with their critiques. Unless each level of education and each area of subject matter (discipline) is examined and its purpose understood, change is impossible.

For our purpose we assume the reader understands the needs of the different levels of education. It is enough to say that necessary change at the elementary level may be quite different than changes needed in high schools.

We concluded that regardless of the nature of the changes, there are overarching structures, many put in place without consideration of training and educational needs, that block effective ways of serving learners. These are structural problems that affect all levels of education and are not specific to any one level or discipline. Rather than list structural problems that are in the way of effective change, we decided to identify those areas that must be adapted to education in the digital, information age.

As a guide to open, new thinking about overarching structures that inhibit or deny effective education for many children and erode the Nation’s need for an educated populace, let’s stand back and look at the K–12 structure and select one significant structure that must be changed.
K-12 education is mandatory except some children can opt-out of the system at age 14 (some states age 16) ending their education. With no place to go, these kids are turned loose to run wild in the streets. We understand that at one time kids could drop out because they were needed to work the family farm. Then things changed and there was no demand for unskilled, underage youth. It is interesting to note that in the ‘40s through ‘60s the military draft collected many of these young men and educated them. Then the draft ended. Dropouts run wild.

Today our core cities are filled with undirected, poorly educated, dropout youth who are a drain on society. The solution seems obvious. If a child did not survive in the traditional school setting, or if her family was dysfunctional and could not/would not support her, then what is needed to save her and children like her, and our society, are training and acculturation programs not unlike basic training and the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Why haven’t programs for these damaged kids been created? Obviously because our society and its institutions are too entrenched and inflexible to change in response to critical issues. Why then will some assume that systemic problems that block what is needed for the digital, information age student be addressed and institutions modified? It would take forces greater than those allowed in a democracy to make it happen. Most institutions are so bound they cannot change. If they are unable to serve a changing population these petrified systems erode the competency of large numbers of citizens and gradually make participatory democracy impossible.

Hopefully, new leadership creates options that by-pass moribund systems. Perhaps through forced redirection? Perhaps through market forces that meet demand?
We believe the battle for change is half won when we are able to clearly identify the structural changes that must be made.

OVERARCHING CHANGES TO OUR THINKING AND MODIFICATION OF STRUCTURES IN THE WAY OF EFFECTIVENESS. BRAINSTORMING AND LISTING MAJOR CHANGES THAT ARE NECESSARY IF INSTITUTIONS ARE TO SURVIVE

Please note: The following lists are in no particular order. Each identified change can and will have volumes written about it. Herein we simply tag some necessary changes.

  1. The role of the teacher: What must change to meet the needs of digitally literate, information age students?
  2. One-way communication ends replaced by interactive communication.
  3. Teachers connect students to world resources.
  4. Teachers set the learning parameters for specific levels (courses and units within courses).
  5. Teachers keep individuals focused and the assigned group “class” individually centered.
  6. Teachers learn about and provide desired outcomes for each student.
  7. Teachers utilize virtual space as an extension of the classroom and as a way to work with students individually and in groups.
  8. Teachers extend their accessibility through the use of avatars.
  9. Teachers know the essential skills necessary for mastery of taught material and train individuals accordingly.
  10. Teachers identify student mastery of identified data by observing how each student is able to apply the concept to other situations.
  11. Teachers work as part of interdisciplinary teams.
  12. Although training may be done in isolation, the educational programs are always interactive.
  13. Teaching emphasis is on student mastery of basic skills necessary to function in the course, and the application of readily available data, not how to find information.
  14. The nature of evaluation changes – teachers do not use tests to punish or motivate students. Teachers use evaluation (tests of many types) as a diagnostic tool to determine the educational focus for each student.
  15. Teachers (educators) break out of the ‘time block’ system and use time as necessary to meet goals. Time-on-task is determined by the teacher and student, not a set schedule.
  16. Course length, within realistic parameters, is determined by the teacher to address student needs and learning styles.
  17. Teachers build their courses and instruction methods around the Learning Path: Introduction, Association, Involvement, Application, Internalization and Contribution. (Dr. Edward F. Berger)
  18. Teachers are highly skilled professionals. Their time is focused on students and instructional coordination. It is not used for patrolling, policing, or administrative tasks best done by support personnel.
  19. Changing the concept of classroom (place-based) education.
  20. Interactive learning takes place in many learning environments. For example, a dedicated classroom space may be used for face-to-face communication, group, and one-on-one interaction, or it may not be needed.
  21. Lecture halls are replaced/supplemented by presentation areas in virtual space.
  22. Students are grouped by achievement level and need, not chronological age.
  23. Placing every student at a desk, in a room, doing the same thing has no purpose beyond administrative facility.
  24. Virtual space “classrooms” can be utilized for 24/7 instruction and one-on-one instruction.
  25. Virtual space can be utilized for testing and mastery evaluation as well as attendance, tutoring, and socializing.
  26. Students may never enter a “place-based classroom” if their needs are met in monitored studies through the Internet or in virtual environments.
  27. Educational delivery is not determined by proximity to a school classroom – students may be anywhere.

FusionVirtual has presented this position paper to stimulate thought, share ideas, and help leaders identify the directions they must take to serve future generations and our Nation. Our work has just begun.

-Alex Berger and the FusionVirtual team.

Need a copy that’s easier to print/read?  View the original whitepaper here.

How Would The Modern University Educate Plato?

Since the late 1770s education has made significant advances.  Matching the revolutionary changes that occurred as a result of the Industrial Revolution, education for the masses has become commonplace in industrialized nations.

The United States in particular has seen fantastic improvements in its education system over the last hundred years.  2007 statistics indicate that some 84% of Americans have completed high school and a record 27% have completed a bachelors degree.  These figures are impressive and have contributed in a significant way to America’s dominant position on the world stage.

However, there is still significantly more that we can and must do to serve the educational needs of millennials and America’s future generations.  Despite the quality and scope of education that industrial era education and the associated systems have delivered, they are quickly becoming obsolete and in some cases detrimental.

21st Century learners live in a period where technology has created a powerful window of opportunity.  Pre-industrial education was limited to the elite and focused on intimate, specialized tutor-peer lessons or direct apprenticeships.  Industrial era education has focused on doing for education what the assembly line did for auto-production.  An ideal learning environment, however, is the synergy of these two models:  Intimate education, deliverable and scalable to all of a nation’s youth.

My alma mater (Arizona State University) is a classic example of Industrial Era education.  With 67,000+ students in the Fall of 2008, ASU delivers a university education on an incredible scale.  They have also proudly labeled themselves the “New American University” and recently released a promotion video advertising how they are breaking the mold and embracing the needs of 21st century students. You can view the video [here]. Yet despite their claims that they are “changing their identity” in response to the impact of the internet and Digital Era – they have barely changed.  For ASU and most major universities, 21st Century education isn’t about improving the educational process – it’s about improving the university’s reach and presence on the global academic stage.

This is a fundamental problem within modern education.  A problem that will continue to get worse as technology advances and true ‘digital natives’ begin entering the university system.   ASU has increased its global footprint – true.  Sadly, it has also increased its class sizes.  As an undergraduate student it was not uncommon for my classes to have more than 50 students.  For many of my general education classes, class size ranged between 150-500+ students. Which brings me to the title of this post.

How would the modern University have educated the Greek philosopher Plato?

Plato’s influence upon our society has been so profound that even the most uninitiated among us have heard his name.  Plato was one of – if not the most famous – of Socrates’ students and went on to become Aristotle’s mentor.  Consider – what would have happened if instead of living and being educated in ancient Greece, Socrates had taught at a major industrial era American university.  What if – as in Ancient Greece – Plato was Socrates’ student.  One of some 499 other students whose entire scope of interaction with their professor is limited to one-directional lecture-based classes.

  • Would Socrates be able to teach using the Socratic Method?
  • Would engaging discussion and debate be possible?
  • Would close student-instructor rapport develop with such power and influence that it would still be credited nearly 2,500 years from now?
  • 2,500 years from now would we know who Plato was?
  • Would the industrial era educated Plato go on to teach and mentor Aristotle?

This question embodies many of the challenges that face 20th Century education.  A system that we are heavily entrenched in and extremely defensive of.

What’s the alternative?  What will the true “New American University” look like?    By introducing modern technology and re-defining the way we design, build and educate in our universities, effective and necessary changes can be made.    The technology now exists to deliver the powerful, focused, specialized mentor-student experience so desperately needed by tens of thousands of students.

We stand poised to embrace education in the digital era.  Yet, to accomplish this transition we need new platforms, new technology and individuals with the vision and willingness to break free from the comfortable, established rules of industrial era universities.   Through my company, FusionVirtual,  I’ve begun planning a project to tackle these questions and challenges.  I challenge each and every one to do the same.  Don’t accept the status quo.  Stop enabling the continuation of 20th Century education – an education platform that has  begun to alienate digital natives.  Emerging learners are not only capable, but ready and waiting for new educational solutions that are not based upon the control of information and limited interaction.  The old models are broken. We have reached the point where we have the technology to truly educate.

Thoughts? Observations?  Eager to share your answers to the questions above?  Please leave a comment below.