With nearly 60 percent of students studying abroad, the idea of traveling the world to lead a life of consequence is not an unfamiliar concept for students at Hobart and William Smith. However, for Rachel Hinnenkamp ’13, Lynn Hu ’13, Stephen Mugel ’13, Leila Peraro ’13 and Casey Sherwin ’13 studying abroad in Denmark marked a time to expand their cultural world views.
The students were recently acknowledged as being exemplary models for cultural immersion when they were each presented with the Intercultural Leadership Award (ILA) at the end of their fall semester abroad at the Danish Institute for Study Abroad.
“While the cultural immersion is a natural part of study abroad, it is not always a priority for students. Our goal is to have all students reach out of their comfort zone with an open mind to get the most out of their study abroad experience,” says Danish Institute for Study Abroad Director Anders Uhrskov.
Students were considered for the ILA based on points earned through intensive courses taken that reflect global and local trends, living and interacting with Danes, and involvement in cultural immersion activities during the semester. Each student was also asked to reflect on his or her experience through a thoughtful individual essay.
“Showing that you have taken an active role in your own experience and have taken steps towards understanding the global landscape illustrates to graduate schools and future employers that you are an asset and will be an engaging and competent student or employee,” Uhrskov told the students during the program’s award ceremony.
As a swimmer for the Herons, Sherwin was concerned about how her time abroad would affect her training. Upon arrival in Denmark, one of the first things that Sherwin did was seek out a pool where she could train – and found an unexpected source of cultural interaction.
In addition to attending master’s classes, Sherwin became friends with the Jensen family and offered weekly swimming lessons to their daughter, Bolette.
“Being asked to help with their swimming, go out for coffee, and watch Bolette’s swim meets made me feel respected, included, and accepted by Danes and gave me a true sense of intercultural experience,” says Sherwin. “Meeting the many accepting Danes at the pool taught me that remaining open and flexible in undesirable situations is a huge part of a successful cross-cultural experience. Swimming provided a way to dissolve the intimidating cultural barriers and use a commonality that allowed me to get to genuinely know Danes through one of the biggest passions in my life.”
Peraro first found the language and cultural barriers rather intimidating, but quickly learned that it was up to her to create a meaningful experience abroad. It was through her relationship with her host brothers — Patrick and Mathias — that she learned to love the Danish life, language and culture. Reading fairytales with them and participating in weekly family games, Peraro became the older sister the boys wished for.
“First I was an outsider, and magically I became an older sister,” says Peraro. “I realized that if you decide that you are not going to try and understand others, then you are always going to be lost in translation. It was not easy to reach this point, but when I made myself uncomfortable, I began feeling more included.”
For Hinnenkamp, immersion was also found with assistance from her host family. During a birthday party for her host brother, she was able to interact with many Danish people and answer questions about American culture, as well as learn a great deal about life in Denmark.
Mugel attributes his newfound independent nature to the lessons he learned while in Denmark. “Learning to live in Copenhagen was exciting, rewarding, and very fun – and it taught me a lot about myself,” says Mugel, who was able to navigate a trip across Europe with his friends despite numerous obstacles.
However, Hu perhaps best encapsulates the idea of what it takes to thrive in a new culture – something she learned through architecture classes and applying to numerous internships. “Taking the initiative is the most important lesson I learned while studying abroad. Denmark has so much to offer in terms of academics and other opportunities,” explains Hu. “I learned that if I do not take the initiative to meet others, nobody else will do that for me.”