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Navigating Cultures — Preparing Students for Traveling Abroad

The standard class at the University of Oregon – or any university for that matter – doesn’t include eating bugs for an assignment. Rather than a regimen of lectures, homework, and discussion sections, students in this Fall 2019’s International Skills (INTL 199) course were asked to eat crickets, one of several unusual assignments that prepare students for the challenges of traveling and living abroad.

“Studying and working abroad is exciting, but it can also be really hard,” admitted Dr. Lesley Jo Weaver, International Studies Director of Undergraduate Studies and instructor for International Skills. “I feel really familiar with a lot of the challenges that a student might face, and I’ve also worked a lot with students who haven’t had much preparation.”

Instead of trying to prepare students for traveling the world in a classroom, Weaver gets them into the community. Her course consists of 10 weekly assignments that range from eating crickets and ‘pretending to like them,’ to pushing the boundaries of personal space in a public area.

The course’s unique assignments teach students practical skills that can be applied while visiting another country or region. They try to simulate an abroad experience and train the brain to think more sensitively about other cultures. The International Studies major requires a 10-week intercultural experience that many students fill with study abroad or overseas internships, which makes the skills taught in this course imperative to learn.

International Skills, although unorthodox, still met twice a week for one hour, 20 minutes. Weaver filled that time with a balance of her own lectures and guest lectures. The guest lecturers came from Global Education Oregon (GEO), Mills International Center, faculty who lead study abroad trips, and others. These lectures familiarize students with travel resources around campus and provide a variety of intercultural perspectives.

Weaver, having only taught this class once, is still making changes to the curriculum. One of the adjustments: organize the order and topics of guest lectures in a better manner. To identify which topics to keep and remove, she’s solicited feedback from current students and the course’s alumni. In the one term the course has been available, it has received glowing reviews.

“Most of the feedback I’ve gotten has been incredibly positive,” Weaver said. “I’ve had students telling me this is the best course they’ve ever taken, the most useful course they’ve taken at the [University of Oregon], they wish they’d had this course before they studied abroad. The feedback has been remarkably warm.”

[International Skills] was a great class to help prepare me for any study abroad programs,” said Maya Mackey, a UO senior and International Studies major. “[Weaver] organized the class to be a comprehensive, discussion-based guide for our future endeavors […] to help prepare me for any international experience I may have or anything that might occur when I am actually abroad.”

Although Weaver’s International Skills class began just this year, it’s in the process of being regularized into the International Studies curriculum as Navigating Cultures (INTL 102)With this in place, the course will join a required introductory sequence with the Introduction to International Issues (INTL 101course for future prospective International Studies students. It will also work toward the INTL minor for lower-division credit, and once regularized, it can count for any student’s social science or global perspectives requirement.