By Ashish Agrawal

Reflections from the Global Perspectives Program (GPP) trip

While the GPP trip is over, musings over my experiences and interactions while being in Switzerland, France, and Italy continue to occupy my mind. I observed multiple differences while being at universities in these countries (as compared to my experiences in India and the U.S.) and traveling outside the university environment. These differences pertained to how the university degrees are set up, how universities incorporate students with diverse backgrounds, how people engage with strangers, and how universities and people in general navigate linguistic differences. While each of these issues may take volumes of writing to get to a substantial understanding, in this reflection paper, I will present a couple of interaction I had pertaining to linguistic differences. Additionally, I will discuss experience(s) I had while crossing borders of countries within the Schengen area that relates to how these countries handle immigrants. I feel this is relevant note because I personally felt being profiled due to my skin color in these interactions – something I had not expected I will experience on my Euro-adventure – and it definitely added a new dimension to my experiences in Europe.

Language and communication

As a researcher who is interested in learning more about cultural differences and how these differences influences people’s experiences when they cross national boundaries, I was definitely keen on learning about the ways in which European universities, and countries in general, address the issue of people speaking different languages across and within national boundaries. I brought this topic up while our discussion with university representatives at the University of Zurich on the very first day of our trip. And it was important to bring this up at a Swiss university as there are four official languages spoken in the country: German, French, Italian, and Romansh. The university representative that in general, people learn one other language spoken in their region in Switzerland in addition to learning English. For example, people living in the French-speaking areas of the country learn German as well and vice versa. This accommodates students from French-speaking part of the country who want to study at the University of Zurich where the language of instruction is German or English [1].

Another language-related incident that is worth noting here is when I was separated while walking to a restaurant for lunch in Strasbourg, France. I went to a different restaurant and asked the serves if they saw a group of people coming there. As I wrote in my reflection notes on the trip:

“In the restaurant, many servers did not speak English but they called someone who could speak [in] English when I had difficulty talking to them [due to my lack of knowledge of French].”

I must admit that I was pleasantly surprised at the kindness of the servers in the restaurant and was definitely not expecting it.

Crossing the borders

As I noted earlier, I had experiences worth noting while cross national borders within the Schengen area. I saw people being profiled based on their skin color, and at times I was the one being profiled.

“While coming back from Milan [to Riva San Vitale] today, I saw a very vibrant example of profiling based on racial lines. On the train, after crossing the Italian border, when the train stopped at the first Swiss station, a police officer came and asked the Black man sitting adjacent to us for his passport. The man did not have passport and the police officer took him [under arrest].”

Similar incidents happened with me while on trains from Switzerland to Italy and Italy to France during my personal travels after the GPP trip. Officers would come to inspect the train carriages at border stations and will ask for my identification documents and legal permission to be in those countries. While they also asked other non-White folks in the carriage for the same set of documents, none of the White travelers were asked for any of these proofs of identity or permission to be in the Schengen area.

Concluding remarks

While my learning about how linguistic diversity is handles in some European countries was definitely pleasurable, I was a little surprised and, at times, uncomfortable with how I was among the few who were asked for documentation in an entire train carriage. However, by expressing my discomfort, I am not making value judgments about their system of tracking undocumented immigrants. My job as a tourist in Europe was to observe and learn about different countries and cultures. And I believe this goal was reached to a large extent.

[1]       University of Zurich: http://www.uzh.ch/en/studies/application/languagerequirements.html