About the Author
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Ben Chambers

Ben Chambers is a PhD student in Environmental Design and Planning, an MS student in Entomology, and part of the BioBuild Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Program (IGEP). He also holds an MS in Civil Infrastructure Engineering from Virginia Tech. Prior to graduate school, he worked for several years assessing potential sites for utility scale wind power.More about Ben ...

One of my research interests is how to use the built environment to passively teach people about biology. There are myriad benefits to doing this, but the one I’m most personally invested in is the potential for a philosophical shift. By placing this instruction in locations that are perceived as “human”, I hope to help break down the notion that people are separate from nature. Ben

Many times, I have heard that study abroad is a great way to broaden one’s horizons, and that learning how social structures and institutions operate in other places can help us to understand and improve upon our own. Previous study abroad programs that I’ve read about or participated in have used this as an item on the benefits list, but never before was it stated as the primary goal. The Global Perspectives Program, however, exists to do this for academia. In this essay I express some thoughts and describe some conversations on one such expanded perspective: that of international identity. Here, international identity indicates self-identification as a member of a community that encompasses multiple nations, and consideration of that membership as important.

One of my research interests is how to use the built environment to passively teach people about biology. There are myriad benefits to doing this, but the one I’m most personally invested in is the potential for a philosophical shift. By placing this instruction in locations that are perceived as “human”, I hope to help break down the notion that people are separate from nature. I would like more people to think of themselves as members not just of their human communities, but also as members of important larger groups, such as “residents of Earth”, or “lifeforms”. It is my hope that this acceptance, awareness, and sense of the importance of these groups will lead to more environmentally conscious behavior, and more considerate treatment of other species.

Now, I am an engineer and an entomologist, but I cannot by any means call myself a social scientist or a theorist. I had previously thought of the aforementioned shift as a head-in-the-clouds, silly little dream of mine, really just a background reason to help me feel good about the things I am working towards. Before the Global Perspectives Program, I was virtually unaware of the huge body of work on identity formation. During the program, I met several social scientists and critical theorists that encouraged me to begin investigating these concepts of identity.

Being in a very international setting, I noticed a possible community identity transition that could inform that future work. The transition was between national identities and international identities, where the identity of “international” and “human” supersedes nationalist identities. These are still human, and therefore probably easier shifts for many people to make, but they are also on a scale that is as close to “residents of Earth” as one can get without including other species. So, I started to wonder about national and geographic identity, and how international higher education might expand that to create a larger global identity.

This is also an important identity to me. Identities that have a level as inclusive as “all people” help to break down what I think are toxic mentalities, such as us-versus-them. Specifically in academia, I hope that it might help break down unhealthy competition. In many fields, scientists are placed in a system that requires them to beat other to the finish line for their research. I like to think that the extra level of inclusivity would help people to decide to restructure their systems to be cooperative and altruistic, and focus on bettering humanity, rather than having to beat the other lab or the other country to reach their breakthroughs. It might make sharing and open access easier to swallow, too. Moreover, it functions similarly to the identity that treats the biotic community as important, only on a scale of a single species. It is a big step in the right direction.

Some literature already exists examining the impacts of study abroad on national identity and internationalism, and there is a wealth of information on intercultural competence. Studies on identity appear to focus primarily on national identity, rather than international identity, although in these cases national identity may be placed in a global context, and therefore may inform future citizenship practices (Dolby, 2004). One study found that study abroad disrupted national identity, though students were not necessarily performing intentional reflections on this identity, which suggests that study abroad programs that sought this result might benefit from facilitating reflections (Savicki & Cooley, 2011). Other papers, such as a case study of students in Cuba, suggest that even while identities as members of a global community are formed, nationalist identities are strengthened (France & Rogers, 2012). Of particular note is a book about exchange between France and the US during the 20th century (Walton, 2010), which lends great support to the notion that study abroad helps people to better understand their own nations and social structures and systems. It also supports that study abroad can promote interest in creating and maintaining international community and governance. One of the programs examined in the book was created for this express purpose, and appeared to have been successful. Unfortunately, throughout, there is a not so subtle imperialist bent, and the nations involved are clearly seeking to express some dominance on the world stage. This may not be bad, depending on who you ask, but it does not support the greater importance of the community of humanity as a whole.

I began my own investigation by asking student participants in GPP about their feelings concerning national identity, and whether their feelings thus far had changed in any way as a result. I got a variety of answers, which seemed to vary by nationality. I should say here that my sample size was small and not necessarily representative of a population, and so should be considered exploratory and anecdotal, and not indicative of any larger trends.

Conversations with the Swiss students had a common theme. The Swiss confederacy has a history of neutrality, and the nature of the government and the various social institutions lead to highly local identity and investment in the cantons. Naturally, then, there was a consistent thread of caring more about Switzerland than the world at large. Knowledge and skills learned in higher education elsewhere would serve the Swiss. They would make their part of the world a better place. One particularly interesting conversation uncovered a bit of what seemed like confusion with this idea. I had brought up international responsibility, and I was asked why another nation should be their problem? The Swiss can’t help them, if they are a sovereign nation. They did not have the right, nor the legal means. Instead, they said, they like Switzerland and would much rather spend their energy improving it. After that conversation, I spent a few days feeling like a horrible imperialist. What I think of as supporting the global community can easily be viewed as unwelcome and unnecessary interference. I still often wonder if I really have the right to promote the narrative I described earlier in this essay, of membership in a larger community of Earth’s biota. This experience reminded me that these efforts require careful framing, and that imposition and insistence is a very poor tactic in the long run.

The Virginia Tech cohort responded to the question of international identity in more varied ways. One international student that their identity as a citizen of their home nation was strengthened by their experiences studying abroad, as they celebrated and exercised that identity as a way of staying connected to their home and family. The domestic students expressed several reactions. Some, including myself, experienced a reinforced connection with the idea of a global community. Others were still processing the expansions of their worlds, and primarily expressed awe and a desire to wait a while longer before considering my question. More than one person responded by shrugging, saying “I dunno”. These last two groups of responses were in line with the findings of Savicki & Cooley (2011) previously mentioned. Study abroad, particularly a short-term and intense program like GPP, can be overwhelming with all of the new ideas and experiences the participants are exposed to. Processing it all takes time.

To what degree international education fosters international identity is unclear, but my experiences and the literature support the idea that it can and does do so. If future study abroad programs encourage these discussions, students’ understandings of their national and international identities can be further developed. As a result, the prevalence of internationalism both within academia and without could be increased. Maybe then more researchers would look into these identity expansions, and the results could be applied to movements towards the importance of identity as members of the communities of life forms on Earth.

References

  1. Dolby N. 2004. Encountering an american self: study abroad and national identity. Comp. Educ. Rev. 48(2):150–73
  2. France H, Rogers L. 2012. Cuba study abroad: a pedagogical tool for reconstructing american national identity. Int. Stud. Perspect. 13(4):390–407
  3. Savicki V, Cooley E. 2011. American identity in study abroad students: contrasts, changes, correlates. J. Coll. Stud. Dev. 52(3):339–49
  4. Walton W. 2010. Internationalism, national identities, and study abroad: France and the United States, 1890-1970. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press