‘Unpacking the Shoebox’: Students Reflect on Study Abroad

A new course teaches the art of storytelling about the joys and rigors of travel.

Students who study abroad keep jam-packed schedules—taking classes, doing internships, sightseeing, getting to know with their host families, and immersing themselves in what can be unfamiliar cultures. “They need time and support to reflect on their most meaningful experiences when they get back to campus,” says Francine A’ness, assistant research professor and associate director of the Frank J.  Guarini Institute for International Education

That’s why A’ness and Prudence Merton, associate director for faculty programs and assessment at the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of  Learning (DCAL), designed and co-taught a new course last spring, “What’s in Your Shoebox? Unpacking Your Study Abroad Experience.” They say the title alludes to advice cultural anthropologist Bruce La Brack gives to university exchange students. Don’t “shoebox” the experience, he urges. Don’t tuck memories away like souvenirs. Share them.

Unpacking the Shoebox

For the first few weeks of class, the 20 students, who had all studied abroad, read, talked, and wrote about such topics as the difference between sightseeing and cultural immersion, and the importance of friendships in faraway places. For their final projects, they created five-minute digital stories using photographs and videos they had made during their trips. Scripting and recording help came from Susan Simon, media learning technologist at the Dartmouth Library’s Jones Media Center

Noah Sofio ’20, an economics and government major who spent a term in Rome, focuses on the plight of migrants selling trinkets in the streets. “I felt empathy for them. Overall, the project helped me put myself in the day-to-day life of migrants and Italians and gain a better understanding of their significance in Italian culture and history,” says Sofio. 

Angela Ortlieb ’19 documented a six-week biology research Foreign Study Program to Costa Rica. 

“We were busy all the time, and I knew that in order to get the most out of my experience I had to take a few moments each day and just think about what I was doing and how it was affecting me, and in what ways I was learning and growing,” Ortlieb says. “Afterwards I felt like I had grown a lot and learned about myself in a new way by meeting people and trying new things.” 

Alex Cotnoir ’19 also sets his video in Costa Rica, where he had an internship with the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding. “It’s one of the most biologically rich places in the world, and I went there as a field biologist, but at times I was just concentrating on research and not getting the whole experience,” Cotnoir recalls. One of his newfound Costa Rican friends urged him to step out of the lab to meet people, and that opened a window for him on the culture.

“Making the video for this class,” Cotnoir says, “I learned that to be a good scientist, you have to be a good storyteller, too.”

Turning Points

Travel, the students say, brings turning points. Emma Cooper, who went to France, comically opens her video with an unflattering selfie, her cheeks, she laments, “the size of grapefruits” from a throbbing wisdom tooth. The infection forces her to muster enough French to ask her host family for help, bringing them close together on day one, and for the rest of the trip. 

In Africa, Anna Ellis finds not only gorgeous scenery, but troubling poverty—“This was not the Discovery Channel,” she says—which strengthens her resolve to work for social and environmental change. 

Merton says she was moved, in the final projects, by how willing the student travelers were to put their  vulnerabilities on screen. She says she and A’Ness pushed them to dig for the emotional as well as the intellectual impact of their encounters away from campus.

“That final screening was a four-hankie day for me,” she says. “I was in tears about the candor and the honesty I saw.”

On the last day of the course, A’Ness said, “Even when you went to the same place, you all saw it through different eyes. Even when you walked along the same river, you had different experiences, and you had similar experiences in different parts of the world. There were recurrent themes: being yourselves not hiding, stepping out of your comfort zone, the importance of relationships, friendships, food, leaving Dartmouth behind, and embracing the unexpected. Give yourselves a round of applause.”

With support from the Guarini Institute and DCAL, “What’s in Your Shoebox?” will be taught again next year. Many of the class projects will be published in Alterity, Dartmouth’s new student-led journal about global experiences.    

Charlotte Albright can be reached at [email protected].