International Students in Cultural EncountersInternational Students in Cultural Encounters

This January, University College Copenhagen have welcomed more than 200 new exchange students from around the world. The students come from different countries, regions, and continents, but they all share the same destination for the next few months: Denmark and University College Copenhagen.

By Nicolai Guldager Agernem | 14 February 2019

The first few weeks of being an exchange student is often characterised by stress induced from all the new experiences, administrative hassle, and uncertainty. For instance, CPR registration (social security number), finding accommodation, finding your way around campus, and meeting locals and other exchange students.

University College Copenhagen continues its traditions of hosting a series of introduction classes for the duration of a week – also labelled “Introduction Welcome Week” - to ease the transitioning period for new exchange students.

20-year-old Lebanese student, Tania Hannoun, who studies International Affairs at Notre Dame University – Louaize, said: 'I am still only realising that I am in a new country. There has been a lot of challenges already, for instance finding a house to live in. But, I have had so much support from the administration, and the introduction week has been really helpful. I feel safe that I can always get help.'

On a cold, windy Thursday in January, 43 exchange students – all aspiring teachers – gathered at Campus Carlsberg for a class labelled Cultural Encounters. The class is part of the Introduction Welcome Week and was managed by Anders Riel, Phd, international consultant of the Department of Internationalisation; and Sabine Lam, international coordinator of the Department of Teacher Education.

Cultural Encounters is a class that prepares the new exchange students for the complex and diversified challenges they may face culturally. The class addresses common feelings that exchange students may experience while studying abroad. The common feelings include confusion, feeling lost, feeling insecure, outside, or angry and sad. Cultural awareness, cultural sensitivity, and reflection when faced with cultural encounters are some of main tools to engage in transformative learning when faced with such feelings.

Anders Riel explains the impetus for organising a workshop on cultural encounters:

'The students will encounter many cultural differences while they are in Denmark. In this workshop, we provide some tools to the students that will assist them in managing and making sense of cultural encounters, and most importantly assist them in learning from these situations – both personally, professionally, and academically.'

According to an internal survey, exchange students often find encountering a new culture the most rewarding experience of studying abroad. The melting pot of different cultures in the immediate environment is an exciting learning experience that exposes, challenges, and inspires the students’ own cultural frame of reference. The goal of the introduction week is not merely to accommodate all the administrative hassle, or facilitate the more social aspect of going abroad, but rather to promote and facilitate academic and professional learning – and reflection - in a culturally new environment.

Read about Portuguese student, Claudia Faria, and her experience with Danish language classes and IA Sprog here. 

21-year-old Greek student, Konstantina Zachariadi, who studies at University of Patras, said about her motivation to study in Denmark: 'First of all, I always wanted to travel around Scandinavia. Another reason is that I wanted to experience the Nordic educational system that everyone is always talking about. The available courses were also very interesting for me,' and added: 'And.. I actually like the weather.'

Following a short lecture on culture, diversity, and difference by Anders Riel, the students were divided into groups and tasked with describing – and drawing on a poster - their expectations of studying abroad. The exercise included both academic and personal expectations, and would later be presented in front of the class.

Konstantina commented on her expectations of studying abroad: 'I am expecting to see new things, try new things, and evolve how I am thinking.'

Tania added: 'I am hoping that this experience will help me discover myself, who I am, and how I react to challenges. I have been living in this bubble – my society – and I am sure I will come back with a lot of experience of something I will always remember.'

Read more about Introduction Welcome Week and the famous 'Smørrebrød' here. You can also read about Denmark as portrayed by international students.

Group exercise

Throughout the week, the students had already participated in various activities designed to promote social interaction within the group. During the presentations of the group work, the students were often keen on accentuating the prosperity of intercultural relations, as one student noted during his group’s presentation:

'Hopefully, we will take this opportunity to make a lot of friends both in this group and with locals. This network can help us both socially and professionally later on when we become teachers.'

Konstantina Zachariadi corroborated this notion: 'The teaching is different from back home, where we sit in big amphitheatres. Here, the classes are much smaller, which is nice because you are never bored.'

And continued: 'I get this excitement because I feel like I am already learning. I feel like I want to explore.'

Group presentation

The notion of how cultural encounters can become a source of professional learning is exactly why “Cultural Encounters” is so important. The various exercises facilitate intercultural interaction, and the students actively engage in knowledge exchange when they communicate their habits, norms, and ideas from “back home” with their peers.  

Anders Riel expands: 'The student should have a good time while abroad. But, we want the experience of studying abroad to be more than “just a good time.” The students should be challenged socially, academically, and professionally. We want students to reflect on their learning experience – and how cultural encounters can inspire and facilitate new knowledge.'

To summarise Cultural Encounters and Anders Riel’s short lecture; "Cultural Encounters" is about facilitating transformative learning – an understanding of the self, an awareness of the self in relation to others, which leads to a change in how one sees the world.

The students will meet for a midterm evaluation workshop on 6 March 2019. The workshop will facilitate reflection on what the exchange students have experienced so far in relation to their previously established expectations. Another workshop will be arranged towards the end of the students’ stay with emphasis on further propelling reflection and learning.

 Group exercise

Introduction Welcome Week takes place around Copenhagen with many different groups of exchange students. Here are some pictures from social activities at Campus Tagensvej 86.