As instructors sometimes it can be difficult to remember how disorienting university life can be to students. First year students have unique challenges that differ greatly from the transfer students, while first generation students have their own challenges throughout college. However, as professors we are quite comfortable in this environment with our own specialty. The corporate speak for what happens too often in these environments is silo thinking, each person operates in their own silo without interacting with other people. So, how can professors get the feeling of a beginner’s mind? Culture shock.
For two weeks I taught students a short-term study abroad program in South Africa and the theme of the course was social movements in South Africa. This was my 5th time in South Africa, but my first time teaching and leading a study abroad program. I did not have culture shock while teaching my students. I did have new experiences and of course just visiting the country in this new role was a new experience, but I did not experience culture shock. I knew the money, local customs, and had done almost all of the activities on the itinerary for my students, which is how it should be for the academic leader of a study abroad. It can make it difficult to remember what the feeling of culture shock is like both for the study abroad student and the new university student.
I felt disorienting culture shock my first time in South Africa, which was only a nine day visit. I was trying to absorb every single sight, sound, and smell. I didn’t know the currency and felt unsure with each encounter. But! South Africa was a place I’d wanted to go for a long time and I knew a lot about the country. Before my trip there I read everything I could, watched all of the movies about South Africa on Netflix, and scoured YouTube for South African music. Also, South Africa itself is very British still and you only have to be as uncomfortable as you want to be. You can always retreat into the comfort of familiar food, music, and TV shows. I mean, I even made pimento cheese spread while I was in South Africa. When I traveled to Namibia and Botswana I was slightly disoriented, but not full on culture shock.
Then I traveled to Tanzania.
I left the massive O.R. Tambo International airport in Johannesburg and I flew into the country on lovely South African Airlines. I had not fully researched the country because this was a vacation and not a work trip. I did what most people do for vacation. I looked up things on Trip Advisor, talked to friends who’d been here, or had connections to the country. I had my accommodations booked for my time in Zanzibar but I didn’t have a detailed plan because I only booked 3 full days. I thought I was totally good. I had the taxi booked from the Zanzibar airport to the other side of the island where I was staying. I was totally set.
lol…I was not prepared!
When we landed in Dar es Salaam I could tell the airport was smaller than the one I’d just left, but the size of the airport only scratched the surface. So, with the little research I’d done I didn’t think that I needed a visa for Tanzania upon arrival, but you do. Thankfully, the visa can be obtained upon arrival and you don’t have to go through your embassy. The fee for the visa is $150 in USD. And they want those dollars! So, when I walked into the airport I noticed the wall of customs and immigration forms. “Okay” I thought, “You’ve done this in several countries. No problem.” I was even excited at this point that I had the address for my accommodations. I thought that it was going to be smooth sailing from there.
However, I started to feel overwhelmed as I tried to make sense of the mass of people in front of me. There was no organization to the lines. There was obvious confusion with little care being taken to impose any order on the situation. I stood in one line and a guy came up to me and asked if I had my “yellow card”. No, but I have a letter saying that I don’t need it. He told me that he was just sent from one line to another to get vaccinated. He was coming into the country for business and I thought well, maybe I’ll pass since I’m just here for a few days. Then a man in a military uniform came up to me and asked if I was here for business or pleasure. I told him just three days of vacation. So, he sent me directly to customs. I finally reached my turn for the booth and she went through the process of taking my finger prints. I could barely hear her and she didn’t seem to have any desire or intent to make being understood by me (or anyone else) a priority. We went through this whole process and she asked, “Visa?”
“No”, I replied “I’m just here for only three days.” I tried to de-emphasize my time here as much as possible in that one sentence. It didn’t matter I needed a visa. Like I stated above the visa was $150 in USD. I don’t carry cash at home much less while traveling. So, I asked the lady where to get cash and she told me the ATM. Sounds simple, yes? Again, I was SO confused. By this time I was shuffled over to the visa area and another man in uniform took my passport. I asked him where I could get cash because I did not think that I could go outside. Well, that’s exactly what I needed to do. So…before even getting my passport stamped I went in and out of the immigration area twice and outside of the airport once. I went into the ATM room and there was a big dude hunkered over one of the machines. I walked in and said, “I am so sorry and I hope this doesn’t make you too uncomfortable, but how much money equals $150 USD? I have NO idea!” Without looking up he walked me through what I needed to do. Then I went back inside, asked someone else where to exchange my Tanzanian shillings for USD, and proceeded to complete the transaction.
It was about this point when I thought, “This is how our students feel.”
I know not everyone can travel to a foreign country, but teachers do need to find ways to get outside of their comfort zones and navigate new spaces and systems. If we can be reminded of what it means to be a beginner we do a service to our students.