For students studying abroad, life in a foreign country may include many elements of uncertainty: new foods, unfamiliar languages and wholly different ways of living.
Laura Cochrane, an anthropology program faculty member at Central Michigan University, believes discomfort can shape students in powerful ways.
"When students step outside their comfort zone, they learn so much about themselves. They engage in creative problem solving. They become more flexible and adaptable. They are empowered by their ability to navigate new situations."
Cochrane and her colleague, anthropology faculty member Dusty Myers, recently took students on a trip to Ghana on a first-of-its-kind service learning partnership among the cultural and global studies program, study abroad and the Mary Ellen Brandell Volunteer Center. Titled Environmental Sustainability in Ghana, the trip allowed students to study the cultures of Africa while participating in service projects related to the environment and sustainability.
During their three weeks far from central Michigan, the students had ample opportunities to practice problem-solving and adaptability.
Finding solutions for discomfort
Life in Ghana had many complications and challenges for the students, especially when it came to eating.
Lanette Roberts, a cultural and global studies major, said she struggled to find foods she liked. She wasn't used to heavily-spiced sauces and the unusual preparation of some foods, including meat. Several of her CMU classmates were vegetarians and had a hard time finding meals they could eat.
Students lived in host family homes in the village of Manso Amenfi.
To avoid offending their hosts, students often tried small bites of what was prepared for them. Roberts and other students quickly learned the names of foods they liked and stocked up on snacks to enjoy between meals.
Life as an outsider
Stephanie Buckholz, a senior exercise science: kinesiology major minoring in nutrition and leadership, had gone on several Alternative Breaks, but had never been on a plane or left the country. Before the trip, she was looking forward to the new experiences she would have overseas.
"As a health professional, I'll have patients from all ethnicities, cultures, races and backgrounds. I like the saying 'there's no growth where you're comfortable,' so I'm looking forward to taking a step out of my comfort zone and experiencing a new culture and meeting new people," Buckholz said.
But those experiences weren't always fun, she later admitted.
In Ghana, Buckholz said she felt the discomfort of being different for the first time in her life. With light-colored skin and red hair, she stood out in Ghana. She said many people stared at her on the streets and treated her as a tourist.
"I have never been a minority before. It really put into perspective other people's feelings," she said.
Stephanie Bucholz works alongside a student from Ghana to plant trees.
Communication also posed a challenge. During the pre-trip class meetings, students had learned some basic greetings in Twi, the local language, but Buckholz said it wasn't enough to have a long conversation.
She was grateful to begin work with Ghanaian interns at the Resource Management Support Centre of the Ghana Forestry Commission. While the students planted trees together, they also had the chance to talk.
"Meeting and working with the interns at the forest commission was one of my favorite experiences. It was incredible to talk to students my own age and discuss everything from politics to dating and their typical college lifestyles compared to ours. We wanted to know everything about them, and they were just as curious about us," Buckholz said.
The Ghanaian students also helped the CMU students explore the city and served as interpreters on shopping trips.
"We really got to know them well. It was easier to ask them personal questions about the culture because we were closer in age and didn't have as many communication barriers — they all spoke English well," Buckholz said.
Learning a new lifestyle
Perhaps the most eye-opening part of the trip for both Buckholz and Roberts was a homestay in the farming community of Manso Amenfi.
"My host mother was a teacher and very open to sharing with me. I was so eager to watch and learn everything she did. For example, to prepare our food, she would often cook outside on a small clay oven. It took a long time and made me appreciate how much work went into something as simple as plantain chips," Roberts said.
Lanette Roberts practices weaving on a traditional loom.
Roberts got up much earlier than she would at home so she could help with the family's daily activities, such as cooking and cleaning. She learned to bathe using a bucket of water instead of a shower and how to hand wash her laundry.
"We don't realize how privileged our lives are at home and how much we take for granted," she said.
Challenged but confident
The trip had its frustrations, but also laughter, learning and more than a little self-reflection. The CMU students on the trip bonded quickly and leaned on each other for support.
"I was very grateful for the group of CMU students I traveled with. It made it easy to have important conversations and discuss the feelings I was having because I knew others were having them, too. I laughed so much over those three weeks because of them — they really made the experience worthwhile," Buckholz said.
Roberts felt pride in adapting to a new way of living and the ability to connect with people quickly. She was inspired by the sense of community she saw in the villages of Ghana.
Part of the trip to Ghana included a stop in a small fishing village.
"Everyone took care of each other. They shared their food and gave what they had to support one another," she said.
She hopes to re-create that sort of caring environment at home in Michigan and plans to focus on community service and volunteering.
Buckholz said the experience of being uncomfortable let her practice solving problems, being flexible and adapting to new situations.
"The language barrier was difficult, but even learning to say something as simple as 'hello' showed we were trying to be respectful of their country. People were really excited when we tried to communicate with them. I have never felt more out of place than I did during my time abroad, but it was the biggest learning experience of my life."