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Study Abroad: Moving from Romanticism to Reality

By Dr. Christopher Darius Stonebanks

Educational dialogue in Malawi

Educational dialogue in Malawi

With the study abroad volunteer, romanticism is understandably never far behind. It’s an understandable association, but one that needs to be carefully considered if crossing borders endeavours will ever move from what Praxis Malawi participant (who is now doing her graduate work on the research she stared in Malawi) Kristy calls, the difference between “doing good and feeling good”. Understanding that the “… growing trend of the “globalisation of poverty” which has its roots in the polarisation of incomes both within nations and between them; the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer” (Dine, 2001, P. 81), the need to move beyond romanticized ideas of “helping” or “saving” that seem to help and save very few is urgent.  A serious consideration to examine the seemingly circular matter realistically and honestly is needed, so that working with communities abroad can be striped of the failings of romanticism, along with its connections to paternalism and … yes … even maternalism when it comes in the form of condescension (Waaldijk, 2012).

In the not so distant past, organizations in the 1960s like Canadian University Service Overseas (CUSO) and the American Peace Corps were steeped in the noble and happily naïve convictions that sending the relatively privileged abroad to volunteer in the most economically moribund economies, would eventually benefit from prolonged contact … eventually. Over time, however, modified romanticism shifted from the belief that the individual could do something for the village, to the village being able to do something for the individual (del Mar, 2011). Mirrored in Hollywood blockbusters, from Lawrence of Arabia (1962), to Dances With Wolves (1990) and then Avatar (2009), we see a popular trend in which whereas at one time the newly arrived individual in the village once aspired to the idea of helping “the natives”, now the dream is that the village will help the individual. The romantic idea of the individual traveling abroad to spread their knowledge to the less fortunate, has now become fused with a sense that a spiritual void can be filled by returning to a “simpler”, almost anti-modern life. Whatever ideas of commitment between university agencies and community may carry objectives like “transformation”, but who it is transforming is not entirely clear. Clarity in regard to dedication towards mutually agreed upon goals has now become an openly discussed notion amongst Canadians and Malawians and it’s clear that we are often far apart.

Two years ago as we began discussions with local community stakeholders, (the very meetings that forwarded the idea of the construction of an experimental school that would focus on critical thinking, creativity and entrepreneurship), a teacher revealed his perceptions on why so many educational development projects fail and what needs to be done to move forward.

There should be dedication. And, there should be trust. Because when you’re doing things with two parties (pause) sometimes some people can … cheat. Trust, dedication and we should also (long pause) it should be open to everybody. So that everybody should see what is happening. (pause) Now I think it’s going to be more open. (Mr. J, 2011)

The transparencies that Mr. J spoke to stands at the forefront of moving towards change, and that openness has certainly not been a part of past relationships. Chronicling his statement reminds me of another made in a documentary on overfishing (The End of the Line, 2009), when a scientist noted that he didn’t really need data to acknowledge the obvious. He said “Even a number of quality scientists will tell you that statistics are, in some ways, the icing on the cake when you do your science”. Meaning, he could clearly see that the oceans and lakes were quickly, perhaps irrevocably being depleted of marine life and he didn’t need stats to prove the obvious. In many ways, Mr. J’s comment simply acknowledged what we had all pretty much understood, albeit silently, about the effects development projects had produced in Malawi. But, it was nice to put aside the romanticized apparition of the relationship and now get to the type of committed work necessary to get something done.