Culture Shock

Each year, 70 percent of Colgate students leave the comfortable surroundings of Hamilton, New York to study abroad in a foreign culture. We’ve all heard their stories about what it is like to live abroad, but how would it be to come from another country to live at Colgate as a way of experiencing American culture? Colgate’s seven language interns have spent the past year in this situation.

As interns, these seven visitors to Colgate have fully embraced campus life and become involved with a variety of activities, including the organization of campus cultural events such as the World Expo, attending Tables of Babel at Frank Dining Hall, assisting in the classroom and advising cultural clubs. Their involvement has expanded beyond the halls of Lawrence Hall, though, as the interns have formed extracurricular niches, as well.

“German Max Kade Fellow Franziska Merklin and I went to the Hamilton Public Library every Friday afternoon to teach 25 kids some German,” Veronika Jeltsch explained. Jeltsch also co-hosts the radio show “Germanican” with Spanish Intern Perla Gomez on WRCU. “Since both Perla and me are crazy about music, it was pretty exciting for us to play music with which most Colgate students are probably not familiar.”

Though the seven interns perform various tasks on campus and have had differing experiences, one thing remains the same: their amazement at the closeness of the Colgate community.

“What surprised me about Colgate? I have to say the relationship between faculty and students,” Gomez said. “The system is not like this in the Dominican Republic. [There] professors just speak with students in class. There’s no way that you will have dinner with them.”

German Intern Veronika Jeltsch agrees.

“At first, I really liked the fact that the classes here are way smaller, that professors actually know your name and that people in general just know each other,” she said. “I’ll really miss the close contact between professors and students, the fact that you can drop by at an office almost all day.”

The close-knit, approachable nature of our campus community is new to Jeltsch, an English major at the University of Freiburg where there are over 30,000 students. Shunqin Jiang, Colgate’s first ever Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant in Chinese, also found the connection between professors and students remarkable.

A student of Tianjin University, she is accustomed to a student body of nearly 40,000 student.

“Although it was a big surprise to find Colgate and Hamilton so small, I soon found this is a cozy and great place,” she said. “I am impressed by the professors’ devotion and intense communication with the students, the students’ active participation in class discussions, their insights into things, and their diverse extracurricular life.”

The interns were also surprised at an assortment of other aspects of life in America.

“The way people dress is funny!” French Intern Claire Menard exclaimed. “Flip-flops, everyday! Pajamas in class!” She also found that new culinary experiences also abounded – and not always of an especially gourmet sense.

“I miss French food, but here I discovered bagels and cinnamon-flavored gum! I will miss that when I return to France,” she said.

For Gomez, perhaps the most shocking aspect was the weather.

“Oh my God! Everything is so different!” she exclaimed. “First, I have to mention the weather. There’s no snow in the Dominican Republic. The first time I saw snow was here. I know everybody here is sick and tired of it, but I love it! It’s beautiful! I didn’t know what seasons were. I had the chance to see the leaves changing colors in the fall!”

But, of course, not every cultural difference can be as positive and exciting as snow or cinnamon gum. Both Jeltsch and Italian Intern Christian Dusi found Colgate students to be fairly dependent on outside help in daily life.

“[At Italian universities], you find an apartment and you cook at home…we are more ‘alone’.” Dusi said. “The Italian system is more public so you really have to take care of yourself.”

Jeltsch agreed, commenting that she “was surprised that there are people cleaning the bathroom for me and preparing dinner for a whole house. In Germany, I live in an apartment with four other people and we have to take care of everything ourselves. I prefer this way of living to the way things work at Colgate because it just helps you grow up faster and get more mature if you’ve [had] to deal with a lot of problems yourself – problems you don’t have to face when everything is taken care of for you.”

Another aspect of life that differs greatly for some of the interns is the social scene.

“In Germany, you’re allowed to drink and smoke at 16, which might sound irresponsible to some and tempting to others. In fact, it’s neither one of those,” Jeltsch said. “Kids in Europe grow up with a totally different attitude towards drinking. We really learn to drink responsibly because since it’s not forbidden to drink, it’s less tempting or exciting. So teenage drinking is not such a big problem in Germany as it is here.”

Gomez put it simply, saying “[the] drinking age in the Dominican Republic is 18. And it is not that I miss the alcohol, but I do miss the fact that I can get in any bar I want. Nightlife in Hamilton, New York is limited.”

The interns have also found getting to know each other and familiarizing themselves with not only American culture, but also the culture of their fellow interns, to also be particularly rewarding. “

One of the most amazing things to me is the fact that I met and got to [know] people from probably more than 20 different countries and cultures – I really do have friends all over the world now,” Jeltsch said.

Jeltsch and Gomez’s radio show has reflected those friendships.

“Veronika and Perla…organized a party on the air for me for my birthday. It was so nice of them!” Menard said.

Overall, the interns have found that their time spent at Colgate has offered them a new perspective on American culture and a more worldly outlook on life.

“I have met so many kinds of people! I’ve seen the world from another perspective,” Gomez said. “Now I ask myself questions about issues that I didn’t even know existed, that I never thought about before. I won’t say I’m a better person, but I’d say I’m more mature. I was only 19 when I came here. I was the age of a student, but had faculty responsibilities. It has been pretty intense, in a good way, of course.”

Menard feels similarly, stating: “the experience helped me to understand American culture better; I think that French people are sometimes too prejudiced against American people! I also greatly improved my writing and speaking in English. I’m gonna rule next year [back in France]!”

It is our hope that these interns will take their newfound friendships, practiced English skills, Colgate memories and a plentiful supply of American food as they continue their endeavors in their home countries and beyond.