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The research addressed in this article explores the learning from mistakes international educators have made in the course of their work. Built on the experiences of forty-five individuals, shared through surveys and interviews, the this study finds that the participants learned valuable lessons regarding the value of strong and positive relationships; the impact of culture in their work; the importance of well-designed procedures; the balance between intuition and investigation in evaluating options and making decisions; key considerations in program design; and the importance of self-care. The last three of these lessons are the focus of this article.
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Learning from Our Mistakes: International Educators Reflect
David Shallenberger
School for International Training
“By seeking and blundering we learn.”
(Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)
“The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.”
(Henry Ford)
“Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes”
(Mahatma Gandhi)
Non enim omnis error stultitia est dicenda”
(We must not say every mistake is a foolish one.)
(Marcus Tullius Cicero)
“He who knows much makes many mistakes.”
(Turkish proverb)
"Omul invata gresind” [The man learns by making mistakes)
(Romanian proverb)
A known mistake is better than an unknown truth”
(Arabic proverb)
It is commonly accepted that we should and often do learn from our mistakes, as the proverbs
from around the world show. The self-help, scientific, and business management literature is full of
guidance in this regard (Schoemaker, 2011; McGregor, 2006; Lehrer, 2009; Livio, 2013; Holden, 2007;
Ullsperger, 2008; Tugend, 2011; and the entire April 2011 issue of Harvard Business Review). From
Cicero to Gandhi, and Romania to China, received wisdom tells us that we should honor our mistakes,
that they can lead us to great learning.
It is also quite common to be afraid of making mistakes. Teachers grade us down for errors on
tests, bosses often chastise us (and worse) for taking risks, and religions may condemn us if we commit
a sin or take the wrong path. Popular and academic literature on perfectionism (Antony & Swinson,
2009) and research such as that done by Accountemps (2012) on workplace fears substantiate the
commonness of this fear of making mistakes.
International educators are no exception to the experience of learning from mistakes. At a recent
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professional meeting, several of us who had been in the field for decades shared some of our greatest
lessons reaped from mistakes. As people who cross borders regularly we could cite multiple instances
of funny and serious cultural and linguistic misunderstandings, using the wrong word and offending
someone, for example. At the same time, and particularly at earlier phases in our careers, we had been
embarrassed by our mistakes.
At the gathering mentioned above these cultural gaffes were common, but so were mistakes we
had made in working with students, bosses and coworkers: not listening carefully to all sides of a
problem, rushing to conclusions, making poor decisions, and so on.
This conversation and others led me to wonder about the larger field, and to ask the question of
others, “What have you learned from your professional mistakes?” This article comes out of that
Researcher Reflection
Perhaps because I am approaching retirement, I do not worry about sharing my own mistakes. In
fact, as an educator who works with graduate students in international education, I share these trip-
ups regularly, to help them feel comfortable. As a consultant, I also own the mistakes I’ve made as a
way to be honest and to explore the range of alternatives and possible outcomes that can emerge out
of strategic work. So I will share a few mistakes in my own life that have helped me learn.
On a short-term program I was leading in Switzerland, I was surprised to see an African
American student come back early from a free weekend. I asked him about his return and he
told me of a frustrating encounter he had in Milan, which he attributed to racism. Instead of
hearing him out, I jumped in quickly to challenge him about possible cultural factors and
misunderstandings. My intervention stopped his processing and sharing in its tracks. My lesson:
listen without judgment.
I was tasked with developing and implementing an undergraduate degree program in Hong
Kong for a US-based university. I had many important lessons along the way, beginning with
my first day when I sat on the edge of the desk and asked for ideas and input in a context that
disdained that kind of overly casual behavior on the part of a professor. You’d think I would
have learned better after five years, but that’s when I had a room of US American and Hong
Kong Chinese students together studying power and privilege in their two societies. I asked the
Chinese women to form a fishbowl to discuss stereotypes about women in Hong Kong with
no volunteers. My lesson: fully integrating cultural learning is difficult and requires constant
reminders; hierarchy and power mean very different things in other cultures.
Trying to pull together a large enough group to run a short-term program, I invited a former
participant from a trip I had led a couple years before, who I knew had maintained strong
connections with one of the countries we were visiting. My “gut,” however, told me that inviting
him would be a mistake, since his overbearing style had created many problems in the earlier
group. Sure enough, he turned out to be difficult in many ways. My lesson: don’t waive your
criteria out of desperation in order to have enough students to make the program viable.
Of course there are many smaller mistakes I, like many others, have made. On numerous
occasions I have gone into a store to buy something, asked for what I wanted (after carefully preparing
my question in the local language), and received a rather curt response because I did not go through
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the accepted gracious openings expected in other cultures. My US American hurried mentality has
betrayed me and, by not asking first how the shopkeeper is, I have been seen as rude. In a similar vein
I have sought firm appointments for meetings when I’ve been traveling in countries where the rhythm
is much more relaxed, and I’m afraid my impatience and frustration have been too visible. I’ve been
seen as pushy and obsessive, working counter to my goals. My lesson: be aware of cultural norms and
act respectfully. In situations like those mentioned above, take a breath and move slowly.
In a similar vein, I can’t even begin to count the number of linguistics mistakes I’ve made when
I’ve ventured into communication in the host language. But the biggest mistake in this regard has been
NOT taking the risk to speak because I was embarrassed or afraid of looking like an idiot.
An interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary idea
Much has been written about making mistakes and learning from them. Mistakes have been
important in advancing scientific discovery (for example, Livio, 2013). Similarly, scholars of learning
organizations beginning, perhaps with Senge (1990), and decision scientists such as Schoemaker (2011)
make a similar statement about how creating room for mistakes can be profitable. There is also a rich
body of literature of reflective practice and teaching, stimulated by educators such as Schon (1984)
and Palmer (1997). The insight, research and reflection are inter- and cross-disciplinary, and much too
vast to cover here, so I will merely acknowledge and briefly synthesize some key points. In this
cumulative work, three of the most significant benefits of mistake-making stand out:
Most clearly, mistakes make way for important learning and innovation, because they take us
outside of normal pathways.
Making room for mistakes creates a culture of support and camaraderie.
Mistakes can set off a line of thinking that opens up new ways of thinking about an issue.
Mistakes an d l e a r n i n g i n I nt e r n a t io n a l Ed u c a t io n .
In this field, there has been an understandable focus on intercultural misunderstandings. There
are numerous books, videos and other materials such as Molinsky (2013), Peace Corps (2010), the
Culture Smart series of almost 100 titles (including, for example, Williams & Branco, 2014), and
Kwintessential’s web articles (Kwintessential, 2014) on “cultural gaffes. These are mostly geared
toward avoiding mistakes, but also, almost as an afterthought, they include advice on how to deal with
them once you commit them.
Perhaps most directly relevant to this discussion is research sponsored by The Forum on
Education Abroad on the challenges that beset partnerships between Brazilian and US American
international educators (2013). Prepared for a dialogue at the 2013 FAUBAI (Brazilian international
education) conference, the research identified the following difficulties and misunderstandings:
US Americans were frustrated by strikes, lack of responses to emails, changing personnel,
and the difficulty of making appointments. They typically attributed the last three to lack of
interest on the part of potential Brazilian partners.
Brazilians felt Americans only cared about money, were not genuinely interested in Brazil or
Portuguese, and did not understand the country.
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By understanding the two societies, one can see the cultural and social factors at play. It is
understandable, for example, that communication between high-context Brazilians and low-context
US Americans would encounter significant snags. Add to that the very different structures within
educational institutions, and one can see great potential for frustration. Participants in the dialogue
felt the conversation was worthwhile, and saw the mistakes in their assumptions about the other
culture, but that does not mean that one will see change immediately in how international educators
from the two cultures see and work with each other. These kinds of challenges are very difficult to
Many of us are all too familiar with the bigger mistakes, as reflected in the legal cases lost by
providers and institutions, that have led to headlines and concerns about risk management. Among
the most famous cases are Panena v. CAPA, Bird v. Lewis and Clark College, King v. Eastern Michigan
University, and Fay v. Thiel College (Hoye, 2006, for a discussion of these cases). And we all know
through the grapevine about other incidents, ranging from vehicle accidents to student deaths, that
may reflect mistakes. Certainly there are multiple perspectives on all of these situations, and fault does
not necessarily lie solely with the provider or the institution. That said, they do cause one to think
about how one can facilitate study abroad without such calamities, i.e., minimizing mistakes. And they
provide lessons to us about what can go wrong and suggest steps we might take to avoid situations
like these in the future.
Thankfully, such grave problems are rare. Our work does entail risk on a range of levels and
mistakes can be more or less costly. Schoemaker (2011) presents a typology that presents costs and
potential benefits of mistakes, and identifies “brilliant mistakes” as those having low cost and high
benefits. Examples he cites include a lab error that leads to a new discovery or the loss of a job that
results in a new career. Schoemaker goes on to add that these benefits typically take years to develop
and that it’s often impossible to tell at the time of making the mistake that it was a “brilliant” one.
This Project
Participants in this project came through requests made on international education listservs. In
the end 40 people answered an online qualitative survey and twelve people were interviewed for deeper
insight and information. In five cases, interviewees did not participate in surveys first, so a total of
45 persons participated in the study. Responses were identified with codes that emerged directly from
the data.
The format of the surveys and interviews was simple. I asked participants, after they shared an
overview of their professional trajectory, to tell me about one to three mistakes in their professional
lives that led to significant learning for them. The interviews yielded very rich reflections, but even the
surveys were qualitative in nature and contained meaningful reflection.
Participants were international educators who brought a significant level of experience:
Less than one year
1-3 years
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4-10 years
11-20 years
More than 20 years
Their roles spanned the field, and many had moved across our typical categories, having worked
with international students, study abroad, classroom teaching, and in other positions. Currently 20%
work in senior international positions, 17.5% work strictly with international students, 27.5% work in
education abroad, and the remaining 35% work in other roles from professor to alumni relations and
student affairs. Whatever their specific role now, the participants’ experience offers many lessons to
education abroad professionals.
The research was approved by the Institutional Review Board of my institution.
The Findings (Part 1)
The lessons-from-mistakes tended to fall into six overlapping categories. In this article, I will
focus on three of these areas that are particularly powerful; first, however, I will briefly describe the
other three broad learnings, and I will bring these into the subsequent discussion when they contribute
Take the time and effort to build and maintain positive relationships. Our work as
international educators is highly relational. It takes work to build relationships with students, partners,
colleagues and others, but it is time well invested. Be wary of the temptation to succumb to the all-
too-frequent mountains of work and the temptation to not take this time for positive connections.
Don’t be afraid of conflict. Hear and consider everyone’s voices at all times, but especially in times
of conflict or distress. And if your organization is not a good fit, cut your losses and leave.
Culture is powerful and important. Have respect for it and consider it in every aspect of
your work. We are constantly working across borders with people who bring different perspectives
and worldviews to the interaction. We write social media postings, articles, letters and emails to people
across the world and need to consider the variety of interpretations and responses our words can
elicit. We teach and advise students who are in cultures not their own and we must help them see
beyond the limits of their own “lenses,” not to mention modeling this openness in our own behavior
with others. Even after a lifetime of traveling and living abroad, we may continue to experience culture
shock, which we should humbly honor.
Pay attention to procedures and operations. Have policies, communicate them clearly, and
follow them; work scrupulously; attend to details; and know when to be flexible. Plan scrupulously,
take a long-term perspective, and attend to the variety of countries and systems with which one
The Findings ( P a r t 2 )
Culture, relationships, and organizational operations, referenced above, are certainly key factors
in our work and have an impact on the other three lessons that are discussed in the rest of this article.
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The findings explored below, however, are important reminders on their own, of how we should be
doing our work:
1. Trust your gut and be careful about assumptions. Pay attention to “red flags.” Investigate
2. Design strong student-centered programs that take advantage of the location, and which are
holistic, reflective and experiential.
3. It is important to take care of yourself, to seek and maintain balance.
Overarching lesson: Trust your gut and be careful about assumptions. Pay attention to
“red flags.” Investigate thoroughly. Evaluating options and making decisions are rarely simple,
requiring a balance between intuition and investigation. I have grouped participant responses in three
categories to show the richness of thought and honor the focus of the respondents, but the ideas
clearly overlap.
Mistake: Not trusting your “gut,” especially when you note a “red flag.”
Sometimes we
just have a sense of what’s right in the particular circumstance, but we ignore that insight and make
another choice. In one example, an individual
. . . allowed [a] proposal for [a] million dollar program development grant to go forward
when there was no student interest in the geographical area for the program [because it was]
pushed by faculty and upper administration. [It] failed miserably and was a nightmare to
Sometimes, the intuition is about an individual a student, a provider, or a colleague. With respect
to the latter, see what one respondent said about a recurring observation:
In numerous situations I allowed "logic" to override my gut feelings on things, particularly as
it related to new hires. Every time I looked back I realized that I had an instinct about it
from the start, but didn't trust my gut.
A similar realization came to another participant in the study, this time with respect to a service
I had a 'bad feeling' about possibly working [with] a new service provider in spite of positive
feedback from other professionals that had worked with this service provider... . The
relationship with this service provider fell apart because they had changed their
We have all had students who challenged us. Sometimes we had an inkling about problems that
would ensue, even if there may have been little we could do about them. One individual, who worked
in a study abroad office, had some unvoiced concerns about a student who was, in the end, accepted
in a study abroad program and then sent home for repeatedly engaging in behaviors dangerous to
himself and others (he was sharing meds with other students on his program).” In another example,
a resident director told me about a growing sense of discomfort around a particular student:
I had students on the program and one had been in the country before; surprisingly, he had
almost visited all the places our program visits. He would tell students his expectations. I did
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not stop him in his tracks. He would give counter instructions, telling students they could
swim when I told them they could not. I didn’t realize the influence he was having. On every
site visit, he would say that the lecturers were not good, that he had been here with his
professors from university. At the end of it all, I noticed the other students were quiet and
tense. I misread the situation I thought they were tired, had drunk a lot. I had a gut
feeling something was not right somewhere. My supervisor came around and spoke with the
students and I discovered later from her that I did not have a good group of students, but
that others loved the program. I had never had something like that. I need to learn how to
nip it in the bud.
At times, there were clear “red flags,” signs that we needed to pay attention, and the mistake was
to ignore them.
In the work of international educators, those signs may occur in numerous settings.
For some respondents, one place was the job search process, during which we may have ignored
indications that something was “not quite right.” As one individual wrote, “I have glossed over red
flags during initial interviewing processes or on application forms.
Red flags also appear in our work with students, and ignoring these may have powerful
repercussions because of the intensity of our work with them. Ignoring students’ jokes about drugs
during pre-departure orientation, for example, may inadvertently contribute to a drug issue in country,
as happened to one respondent. Another participant in the study notes that she has underestimated
emails from students indicating potential concerns, which later proved to be real and important. In
yet another situation, a student hid her history of anxiety during the application process, but the signs
appeared during orientation when she was “disruptive and demanding:
During the first few weeks I kept hoping she would relax and mellow out and instead she
became increasingly agitated. I finally ended up losing my patience with her on excursion,
which provided her with fuel for her anxiety and propelled her to try to get other students to
join her in a campaign of disgruntlement. She eventually left the program [early] . . .
As these individuals suggest, it does not pay to ignore the red flags; and yet we so often do.
Mistake: Not doing your research.
In a sense that is seemingly contradictory to the “trust your
gut” idea, some mistakes come from not having conscientiously examined the situation. As with many
other issues, these situations can appear in a number of different contexts and with varied
stakeholders. As in an example cited elsewhere in this paper, not being persistent in asking questions
during the interview process can lead to unpleasant surprises. In another programmatic situation, an
interviewee spoke of a time early in his career when
…we booked a tour of a group to Indonesia in 1998. Just before the group left to go to
Indonesia, there was some rumbling; I can’t remember the dictator that was in power, it was
so long ago. Someone on campus contacted me and said, “Have you been watching this?
And I said, “Well, yeah, sort of.” And he said, “I think you ought to be a little more worried
about this.” So I called the US embassy in Djakarta. I asked about it and the guy that I talked
to said something to the effect of, “You don’t really need to worry about coming to
Indonesia. In fact, there is probably not a better time for Americans to come than right
now.” So based on that and some other things, we sent the group. The day after they got
there, it broke out into a shooting civil war. We moved the group to this Club Med type
place on suburbs of Jakarta. They had a great time. They were in a gated hotel, they didn’t
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have to leave, it had a swimming pool. They just played for a week. Unsurprisingly my
bosses were concerned that I had put the group into that situation. So that was a mistake,
but then I was able to pull out this information I got from the State Department and say,
“Look, I made the best guess from the information.” That probably saved my job. I felt if I
had not had that, there’s a chance I would have been fired.
Not asking enough questions also led to an important misunderstanding when a study abroad
adviser unquestioningly accepted a student’s concerns at face value:
A student was having second thoughts about whether to go to a study abroad program. She
stated financial concerns so I alleviated those for her and her mother and encouraged her to
go. Shortly after the semester in Spain began, the student basically had a nervous breakdown
creating a huge burden for the host family and program director not to mention the student
and her family. . .
In this case, the money issue was standing in for something else. The advisor did not see any
indication that there might be something else, but she learned to look more deeply.
Sometimes, we are pressured for decisions and it is hard to delay giving a response until we have
thoroughly researched the issue. But rushing to answer can be a mistake, whether it’s a student,
colleague, or someone else involved. In one situation, a respondent speaks of students whose
impatience for information have led her to make “a mistake I make too many times”:
A student will come in without an appointment and say he/she has a quick question. In
trying to answer it quickly, or on the fly, I might not have all the information or I might rush
to answer. I have given out bad immigration advice simply because I did not have all the
Of course, it’s not just students who provoke us to respond too quickly. A colleague of a
respondent asked her to skip the protocol, to which she agreed, with unfortunate repercussions.
A friend and colleague asked me not to follow the usual protocol to get things done. I
agreed to do so. I did not see the reason to skip the protocol, but I did it anyway. As a
result, there were factors that I did not consider and other colleagues did not get the
opportunity to be part of the event. . . . I went along with my colleague and ignored protocol
because I could see no harm. I did it not because I carefully considered the action but
because I wanted to be agreeable.
Yes, being agreeable is often the motivation to give an answer, yet it has been a mistake for many.
In the end, it has led to disgruntled employees and students, embarrassed international educators, and
even unhappy job situations.
Mistake: Not questioning assumptions.
Sometimes we make decisions based on our own
assumptions, which may seem to us as perfectly obvious and rational, but which prove not to be so.
In one challenging example, a participant overlooked an important visa detail regarding a Canadian
because she assumed that what was true for US Americans would be for this participant:
We had a Canadian on a short term program to Eastern Europe. The Americans did not
need visas to enter any of the countries and I thought that the same must also be true for
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Canadians (I mean really, aren't we the same?). Turns out that at that time Poland had an
agreement with the United States on allowing Americans to enter without a visa, but not so
with Canadians. We spent a tense hour or so at the border convincing the border guard to
let the lone Canadian enter the country. . . .
As international educators working with US students, we are aware of the assumptions that many
have that the legal systems they encounter will respect the traditions we hold. And as we know, that
isn’t true; often we learned that reality through our own misinformed experience:
When I first went abroad, I thought the Constitution protected me overseas! Though this
seems a strange thought to me now, I made the mistake of assuming that U.S. laws protected
U.S. citizens around the world . . . . Though I never got in trouble overseas, I learned that
U.S. laws cannot protect you overseas.
Another respondent wrote about her misinformed assumptions about students’ sense of
responsibility and thoroughness, assuming that program participants had “. . . read meticulously all of
the pre-departure Orientation materials, including the subtle pieces on cultural differences as well as
the concrete program policies.”
Sometimes, the assumptions are about co-workers. It could be counting on the “good will of a
colleague” [from another culture], as one participant noted, “… assuming that she would want to help
me out with a difficult situation as much as I would want to help her in a similar situation.” In a similar
vein, other individuals assumed that everyone would be as enthusiastic as the boss who hired her to
make changes (but they weren’t); that the organization would work by the espoused values of its
programs (but it didn’t); or that the supervisor understood the situation (but he didn’t). Each one of
these situations took significant effort to “clean up.”
It is easy in retrospect to see the folly of our assumptions, yet at the moment we make them they
may not seem misguided.
The lessons:
So what do we do? When do we trust out gut? When do we do more research?
How do we ferret out our erroneous assumptions? The lessons that come out of these mistakes are
valuable indeed. I use the participants’ own words to capture their lessons.
Lesson: Be aware of one’s intuition and the signs that spark a concern. As one person, wrote, “[the
lesson is to …] trust my instincts and then use data to make my case.” Another noted, “[my gut]
has almost always been right.” And a third said she would “[intervene] when [she] sees a red
flag.” Participants in the study focused particularly on working with students in this regard.
Many spoke about engaging the student in question in a dialogue about the issues and the
ramifications of potential or real misbehaviors or concerns:
o In the situation with the disruptive student who had already been in the host country
and was co-opting the resident director’s role and disrupting the other students’
experience, she (the resident director) wishes she had had a private conversation with
the student and asked him to “Let them discover for themselves.”
o “I now will take students aside after orientation if there are any red flags and discuss
the situations and the impacts on health/safety, the group, themselves, the
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o “I have learned to treat even the most vague emails as calls for attention or for help
with an issue and not to auto-prioritize issues by least to most important: all issues
are usually important to the student writing, even if the initial email doesn't make it
sound like that.”
In other situations, the intervention must go beyond a conversation. With respect to the girl with
severe anxiety issues, the resident director told me that, “As it was obvious she was unable to cope, I
should have arranged for her to see a psychiatrist very early and had the psychiatrist speak with my
dean about the situation.”
Lesson: Take the time to dig deeper and to consider the situation more fully. Surfacing better
understanding of a potential job, a student’s concerns and fears, the nuances of a precarious
situation, or other considerations that may not be obvious will lead to better decisions and
actions. As one wrote:
In hindsight I learned that the concerns stated by a student may not be the true ones and
may hide a bigger, more serious, issue that the student may not want to voice with me or
may not even be aware of consciously ... . I now listen to students concerns and try to get at
the root of the issue if they will talk.
The international educator who sent a musical group into what turned out to be a dangerous
situation in Indonesia now tells his colleagues:
“You might be tenured, but if you put students into a [dangerous] situation, probably not a
lot of that is going to matter, because the university will find a way, and if you’re at the end
of that …. You really need to be careful.” You get the best information possible, and you
ought to be skeptical. We’re a lot more sophisticated in the information that we get now.
Another wrote about doing more research with others in the institution: “Knowing what I
know now, I'm more likely to probe with other departments about ‘fishy’ behavior, to see if the
student has a reputation (even if he's not been sanctioned).”
While investigation fully takes more time, that temporal (and sometimes emotional) distance will
often help one get a better, more rounded view:
I have also learned to step back from student anxiety, keep myself calm, try to express
sympathy and not react to tantrums or outbursts. Learning not to react to student anger,
anxiety or sadness is sometimes a challenge, but I have become much better at disengaging
but remaining sympathetic.
As another wrote, “I learned to never let a student bully me into ‘guessing at an answer. It is best
to gather information before responding even if it takes an extra day.”
Lesson: Clarify and articulate assumptions, and then intervene. In order to develop and share a well-
grounded understanding of the circumstances, it is first important to be aware of the
assumptions one is making. But how does one know when making assumptions? How was the
professional working with the US Embassy in Djakarta to know that the information he received
was not enough? In other situations, participants in this study found themselves tripped up in
cross-cultural situations where they did not realize the limitations of their assumptions. At times,
one learns caution from difficult experiences. Having discovered that she could not count on the
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good will of her colleague, an international educator learned that “Trust is something that is
earned.” Another uses her own mistaken assumptions to help students understand “the ways
laws work overseas.” A third, no longer trusting that students have read and understood the
important materials her office provides, “created a shorter initial & signature form with the most
important issues highlighted, with a place to initial next to each highlighted issue.”
Overarching lesson: Design strong student-centered programs that take advantage of the
location, and which are holistic, reflective and experiential. Everyone wants to develop strong
programs, whether on the home campus or abroad. Participants in this research have identified actions
they have taken that led to negative repercussions, and the learning that ensued for them, which now
enable them to create better learning opportunities. Some of the mistakes and lessons are very specific,
while others apply more broadly. As with the other areas, some of the mistakes included here led to
learning that extends beyond just this category.
Mistake: Having inaccurate or unrealistic expectations of students
. Challenges in working
with students involve both the staff (teacher-educator-administrator) and the student. Sometimes, the
balance of responsibility is legitimately tilted toward the “difficult” student and the professional needs
to determine how best to respond. In other situations, the educator has perceived students inaccurately
or unfairly and must revisit his or her assumptions and perspectives.
We’ll begin here with the educator who has misread, misunderstood, or misconstrued the students
with whom he or she is working. Seeing students erroneously not only frustrates the students, it can
also thwart the learning that students are supposed to be experiencing and create extra stress for
faculty and administration.
In some cases, the mistake comes from being blind to important information. One resident
director wrote about underestimating the leadership potential of students. Another international
educator allowed a multi-million dollar proposal to go through even though there was no student
In other cases, it may be about trying to fit students into a mold that is unfair and limiting. A
study abroad administrator who had recently changed jobs from a socially-minded third party provider
to a campus international education office, carried with him a set of expectations that did not fit the
I got to [the new job], and instead of seeing [the university] students for who they are, I saw
them for who I wanted them to be . . .. I had almost a disdain for who they were. They’re
not interested in politics. They’re kind of indifferent. This was my passion. I wasn’t as
effective [as I could have been].
Two resident directors made a similar mistake, making assumptions about what students would
find engaging, continuing to force upon them a curriculum that didn’t match their interests or
knowledge base. In one case, the program leader found the students to be overstressed when she
compelled them to stretch themselves in ways that were beyond them: “I misjudged how much new
stuff they could handle (in addition to a new language and a new culture).”
In the second case, the educator simply wrote, “the students hated the class.”
Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad Volume XXV, Fall 2015
©2015 The Forum on Education Abroad 259
Mistake: Not dealing well with difficult students.
Sometimes, the challenge resides with the
student. Seemingly, all of us have encountered certain behaviors that have challenged us: not following
rules, perhaps, or asking the hardest questions, or showing disrespect for the culture, other students,
or oneself. Especially when life is busy and stressful, it is tempting to merely “wish away” the problems
generated by these individuals. But that rarely, if ever, works. In a situation mentioned in the section
on “trusting one’s gut,” a resident director described how she did not respond as soon as she sensed
that something was amiss with a student who had been to the host country before and tried to
countermand her leadership. As mentioned there, that student’s troublesome behavior affected the
entire group, and the resident director regrets now not having acted early on.
Sometimes, students push us to make exceptions and we may come to “pay” for acceding to their
demands. A resident director spoke of a challenging situation when she didn’t act according to the
guidelines established for research in the host country. A student had wanted to do research on “issues
of oil very protected area in terms of investigation or research,” a topic which required clearances.
The RD thought she could make an exception because of her network, but indeed they discovered
they did need clearance in the middle of the student’s project. In the end, making the exception ended
up impeding the student’s project.
Yet it is also possible to be too strict about the rules, and an exception is warranted:
A student engaged in serious misbehavior involving property damage and personal injury
during his first week on our semester program. I advocated sending him home but was
overruled. He stayed on, under severe restriction, and became a model student in the
Mistake: Not engaging the host community in a positive and respectful way.
Study abroad
programs exist within host communities and can become isolated and separated unless the
connections are positively facilitated. Most international educators have “war stories” of disrespectful
students (or even faculty) who disregarded community values. The participants in this project are no
different. As mentioned in the section on assumptions, it is not uncommon to assume that the US
Constitution and laws will protect one when overseas. Another mistake was that of the program leader
who didn’t engage the host community in resolving a difficult situation:
While serving as resident director abroad, I accused a local neighbor of sexually harassing a
US student. The student claimed he had tried to kiss her and would not leave her alone after
she refused him. I told him he could not enter the study center. He did not obey. I then
asked his head of household to move his snack stand away from the center. Multiple
shouting matches ensued and he expressed anger for being "falsely accused" and not having
an opportunity to express his side. The situation only escalated. . .
The story about the student wanting to do research on a topic that was sensitive in the local
context also has relevance here. Respect for the community can mean following local standards and
laws, not to mention cultural norms. Virtually every international educator has multiple stories about
being unintentionally disrespectful, either through our own actions or those of program participants,
for whom one has some responsibility.
David Shallenberger
©2015 The Forum on Education Abroad 260
Mistake: Not fully considering the situation; being inflexible or too limited in design
Designing a study abroad program takes a special set of competencies, often developed over a period
of trial and error. Participants spoke abundantly about the mistakes they had made.
Being a slave to the schedule. A beginning RD was excited about an exercise that took place
outside early in the program and he stayed wedded to the idea, even in spite of rain that came
and his own suspicion that maybe he should postpone. Students were miserable and did not
want to talk to anyone. The exercise, in his words, “completely failed.” He was not attuned to
the students’ mood and, in the end nobody understood the activity.
Being too linear: using an on-campus model when in the field. Instead of taking advantage of the
holistic learning possible in the location, a faculty leader “sequenced the curriculum in the same
linear way I might do with a longer on-campus course . . . the conceptual part of the class that
provided constructs for analyzing experience was too linear and deductive.” In a similar
situation, a respondent wrote, “the primary text should be the location. The result is that
students spend time, which could be spent learning the new culture they are in, sitting in their
rooms reading.”
Being too focused on one thing. Faculty leaders, either because of their own abiding interests or
because they want to fit in as many on-site opportunities as possible, may not choose their
locations carefully. One respondent said it clearly:
It is possible to have too much of a good thing: Unless the program is focused on castle
architecture, I have noticed that students quickly tire of seeing castles. Likewise, [this is true
of] art museums, history museums, military museums, cathedrals, stately homes, etc. Seeing
one monastery after another can become monotonous and students can lose enthusiasm.
And a few other random and specific mistakes.
While the errors mentioned above can be
captured in a larger “inflexibility” grouping, participants mentioned a few very specific mistakes: not
feeding students at strategic times, handling housing so late that only unacceptable options remained,
and not handling roommate situations carefully.
As a professor of international education, I sometimes wonder if I can give students a list such
as this and prevent mistakes. Yet perhaps these errors (or ones very much like these) are inevitable.
The lessons:
These mistakes offer important lessons to us as international educators regardless
of whether we are just staring out in the field or have been in it for decades.
Lesson: Honor and respect the community. Hear the voices, especially in difficult situations and respect
host country standards and practices.
The director who handled the sexual harassment charges poorly wrote, “I should have
gathered the student and the neighbor, along with others, to a circle discussion so that everyone
could be heard and concerns addressed ... my obligations were not only to my US students, but
also to the surrounding community.” In addition she expressed her sadness and disappointment
about how uncaring she was.
In the case of the student who wanted to do research that was sensitive and required special
clearance, the director said, “I should have told him, you cannot research oil. [While] I think it’s
Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad Volume XXV, Fall 2015
©2015 The Forum on Education Abroad 261
important to let students have opportunities, if their plan is not feasible, they can do plan b, plan
Lesson: Honor and respect the students. Having a narrow set of expectations adds a barrier to the
potential for learning and growth that study abroad can offer. Take the time to uncover student
interests and competencies and build from there. As one educator said, “I realized that I needed to
change and get off my high horse of who I thought the students should be.” Allow students to surprise
you as leaders and as adults who can change and grow.
Lesson: Stay flexible and create a program that fits the context. Modify your curriculum as the situation
and the opportunities allow. Don’t be a slave to the schedule. Instead, seek ways to foster learning that
can build on the setting. One respondent wrote eloquently:
I tell faculty leading programs that the primary text should be the location they are at and
that as much learning as possible should come from "reading" the local architecture,
language, customs, historical sites, etc.
Another, concerned with overdoing “too much of a good thing,” offered the following advice:
Seeing one monastery after another can become monotonous and students can lose
enthusiasm. However, if one can mix it up with a museum thrown in, or a walk in the
country, it gives the students a chance to differentiate between the various things they see
and to more better internalize what they are learning.
And the very specific tips: Feed the students when you’re asking them to do evaluations; see to
housing placements early; manage peer-to-peer relationships closely in housing.
Our lives and lessons are not easily squeezed into categories, these or others. In the context of
this research, the same experience typically yielded lessons in more than one area. A difficult student,
for example, could be best handled with a well-designed program, a balanced and flexible leader, and
careful and positive attention to the variety of relationships. And the difficulties they are bringing up
could have been signaled by a “red flag” last week or month. A stressed-out colleague might be
supported by careful policies and procedures and some time to reflect and regain his balance.
And speaking of stressed-out colleagues, the last lesson speaks to the need to take care of oneself.
Overarching lesson: It is important to take care of yourself, to seek and maintain balance.
It is easy for international educators to feel consumed by their jobs, often because of the intensity of
the interactions with students who themselves may be facing major questions and challenges. One
international educator reflects about the beginning of her career by saying, “In early days, as on-site
staff, working with many students each semester in a challenging environment, I gave all of myself to
their success, wellness, and development.”
Other respondents shared similar stories, leading to feeling off-balance, isolated and burned out.
One, who worked with international students, shared:
David Shallenberger
©2015 The Forum on Education Abroad 262
In my first professional role, I was in charge of planning activities and events for
international students and cultural events for the entire campus. I had many late night events
and odd hours. My mistake is that I didn't have any boundaries between my work and
personal life and I did not have time to build a professional network. My friends became my
international students.
Study abroad directors have reported the same kinds of issues as they traveled with a group of
students away from home. Cross-cultural situations are often stressful, which can lead to less-than-
functional behavior for all involved, including trying to protect students from what could be a powerful
learning experience, what one called “a young adult’s strongest developmental process – experiencing,
making mistakes, reflecting and learning from them.” As one respondent said:
I … learned that it is possible to intervene too much -- importance of letting go of the
outcomes and supporting students as they create their own experience, paved with mistakes
and lessons, and making space to reflect on the process, individually and in groups, is
essential to deep and sustained learning.
The lessons.
So what did they learn? The responses are very similar: take better care of oneself.
As quoted above, one noted that she had learned to ... step back [and] keep [herself] calm ...
disengaging but remaining sympathetic. Another wrote that she learned that she needed to “put an
oxygen mask on myself before helping others (or at least at the same time), also modeling self-care
and sustainability for students.” And an interviewee spoke about how important it was to reflect in
her journal and to revisit the reflections later. And another expressed a similar feeling, focusing on
how to support students without being over-engaged:
I have also learned to step back from student anxiety, keep myself calm, try to express
sympathy and not react to tantrums or outbursts. Learning not to react to student anger,
anxiety or sadness is sometimes a challenge, but I have become much better at disengaging
but remaining sympathetic.
In conclusion, the work of an international educator is challenging, due to complex situations
across multiple cultures, conflicting values, and paradigm-pushing educational encounters. It is to be
expected that these professionals will make mistakes. The overarching lesson here is that we should
not be fearful of tripping up, but rather be open to learning from the mistakes we make. Granted,
our workplaces and institutions must honor and support us as we err and stumble, and, for some of
us, that is unlikely. But perhaps, as we learn more about the value of learning through our mistakes,
we will find a greater welcome for experimentation.
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It all started with the sound of static. In May 1964, two astronomers at Bell Labs, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, were using a radio telescope in suburban New Jersey to search the far reaches of space. Their aim was to make a detailed survey of radiation in the Milky Way, which would allow them to map those vast tracts of the universe devoid of bright stars. This meant that Penzias and Wilson needed a receiver that was exquisitely sensitive, able to eavesdrop on all the emptiness. And so they had retrofitted an old radio telescope, installing amplifiers and a calibration system to make the signals coming from space just a little bit louder. But they made the scope too sensitive. Whenever Penzias and Wilson aimed their dish at the sky, they picked up a persistent background noise, a static that interfered with all of their observations. It was an incredibly annoying technical problem, like listening to a radio station that keeps cutting out. At first, they assumed the noise was man-made, an emanation from nearby New York City. But when they pointed their telescope straight at Manhattan, the static didn't increase. Another possibility was that the sound was due to fallout from recent nuclear bomb tests in the upper atmosphere. But that didn't make sense either, since the level of interference remained constant, even as the fallout dissipated. And then there were the pigeons: A pair of birds were roosting in the narrow part of the receiver, leaving a trail of what they later described as "white dielectric material." The scientists evicted the pigeons and scrubbed away their mess, but the static remained, as loud as ever. For the next year, Penzias and Wilson tried to ignore the noise, concentrating on observations that didn't require cosmic silence or perfect precision. They put aluminum tape over the metal joints, kept the receiver as clean as possible, and hoped that a shift in the weather might clear up the interference. They waited for the seasons to change, and then change again, but the noise always remained, making it impossible to find the faint radio echoes they were looking for. Their telescope was a failure.
Brain scientists have identified nerve cells that monitor performance, detect errors and govern the ability to learn from misfortunes
Legal issues influencing international study abroad programs. Paper Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad
  • W P Hoye
Hoye, W. P. (2006, February). Legal issues influencing international study abroad programs. Paper Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad Volume XXV, Fall 2015