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The Cultural Experience of International Students: Narratives from North and South Europe

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - YouthCult (The Cultural Experience of International Students: Narratives from North and South Europe)

Reporting period: 2016-09-01 to 2018-08-31

Beyond exposure to the media, consumption practices and short vacations, students who spend time studying abroad are crucial subjects for the European integration process. A core objective of policymakers is to foster young people’s trans-national cultural knowledge. The key question is whether and how students’ life experiences abroad on their way to adulthood contribute to overcoming cultural and social boundaries. Studying abroad is a growing and institutionalized practice. Year 2017 was the 30th anniversary of the Erasmus program: 9 million people were involved in the exchange. The impressive trend of this social and cultural phenomenon is accompanied by a knowledge gap. Beyond quantitative socio-demographic data, there is little qualitative empirical material for a deeper understanding of students’ overall experience from an authentically narrative and comparative slant. The YouthCult project aimed to fill this knowledge gap: a major step beyond the state of the art. Using a mixed-method and interdisciplinary approach, it explored the implications of educational travel within the broader context of students’ lives. The overall narrative approach makes a unique contribution to a clear, in-depth and comprehensive vision of what students abroad are actually doing and what they think about it.
The overall objectives of this project are: interpreting the biographical and generational meanings given by a group of international students to their educational, cultural and overall life experience abroad; exploring whether studying abroad can constitute a liminal and transitional space-time towards adulthood, Europeanism and cosmopolitanism; reconstructing a “Grand Narrative” of cultural experiences abroad from international students’ subjective scripts.
Prompted by informal meetings, in-depth interviews, focus groups and ethnographical observations, between 2016 and 2017 I collected 50 autobiographies-autoethnographies (autoethnography being the description of self as seen within another culture) written by international students from all continents. The qualitative study was comparative, hence I collected and interpreted the biographical meanings attributed by a group of international Master’s degree students to their cultural experience abroad in Finland (North Europe) and Italy (South Europe).
The analysis of the qualitative data reveals how most of the subjects had no previous familiarisation with or exposure to clear-cut narratives about the destination country and city. It is instead possible to catch a glimpse of a vague cosmopolitan narrative. This story, constructed on a global scale by different actors and institutions, is partially disconnected from the society and culture of the countries of destination or provenance. The story upholds the validity of studying abroad for both instrumental and expressive reasons. It’s an undefined story without exemplary characters, so it’s up to the individual student to find heroes and villains along the way to construct his or her idea of who is a good citizen of the world.
Another result clearly stemming from the collected stories is how studying abroad constitutes a liminal and transitional space-time: an institutionalized rite of passage towards adulthood and global citizenship. We might say young people today in Europe are facing a triple transitional challenge on their way to adulthood: becoming adults, Europeans and citizens of a globalized world.
A third major result of the project comes from the analysis of narrative accounts in the departure section (family, friends, hometown, nation, high school, university). Here we can identify a sort of push-pull identity dynamic triggering the desire to travel, live and study somewhere else, away from home. In the attempt to portray students’ orientations towards their particular home-worlds and the wider cosmopolitan elsewhere, I sketched out a series of Self-Identity types connected to mobility experiences. For example, the “Fated”, where all the biographical premises are pushing-pulling towards the status of international student.
The fourth theme stemming from the analysis of international students’ narratives is the importance of food (especially for vegetarians and vegans) during their cultural experience abroad.
The results of the projects so far have been exploited and disseminated through: 11 presentations-lectures to international conferences and seminars; organization of two international conferences; submission of manuscripts to international journals; construction of the project’s public website; drafting and submission of a follow-up project.
To the best of my knowledge this kind of systematic study has never been carried out for international students and represents a major contribution beyond the state of the art. Furthermore, I gained the personal and scientific trust of the project participants; as a result, the collected narratives will be updated in a follow-up study for three more years (2018-2019-2020) becoming a unique qualitative longitudinal study in the field of human and social sciences.
Since, apart from quantitative data, qualitative empirical material of this kind is rare, findings can refine theories on human life-span development, human mobility, cultural globalization, cosmopolitanism and education and offer insights to enhance intra-European education and mobility policies.
Helsinki-Florence