ETHICAL DILEMMA: Leaving Your Comfort Zone

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In February 2008, a study abroad student made headlines when he returned from Egypt weighing just 99 pounds, nearly 60 pounds less than when he departed. He had lived with a Coptic Christian family that practiced fasting, and apparently took their practice to an unhealthy extreme. Images of his emaciated body spread across the Internet, and several national news programs picked up the story, sparking a debate about who was at fault and how safe study abroad students really are.

In response to the controversy, study abroad programs were forced to reevaluate the procedures they use to keep students safe—including proper family screening, local advisers, and open systems of communication. But they were also forced to ask a more fundamental question about student placement.

Are there cultures with values so different from our own that study abroad programs should avoid placing American students in them?

Obviously, physically abusive family environments or war-torn countries aren’t suitable settings—but what about settings that aren’t unsafe, just extremely different or "uncomfortable?" Should kids be allowed to stay with Coptic Christian families who fast? Polygamous families?

Where do we draw the line between uncomfortable and unsafe?

We recognize that there is a certain danger involved in exposure to a new culture—students can react in unpredictable, sometimes unusual ways. But if every student who lived abroad were to stay within his or her "comfort zone" and simply avoided cultures with values, religious beliefs, or social customs that are very different than our own, little significant cross-cultural understanding would take place. American students who go to Australia or the United Kingdom would continue to learn from exposure to those cultures, but the lessons they take would be very different from, and perhaps less eye-opening than, the lessons they would take away from Senegal or Egypt.

If concerns over safety cause more students to study in countries that are culturally familiar, there may indeed be fewer cases of dangerous cultural extremism. But there will also certainly be a great loss in the value of those cross-cultural experiences. The answer, it seems, is not to shy away from culturally distinct countries and families, but to engage with them in a safe and open-minded way.


Posted on 11/19/2009 by

Delia Harrington

Delia Harrington

I don't know all the details about the student who stayed with the Coptic family, but this seems unnecessary and definitely unusual for student in Egypt. I never felt unsafe there, and street vendors and restaurants are everywhere. Unless they kept him under surveillance or held him hostage, I see no reason he couldn't have accessed food on his own. Also, it is not in keeping with the Coptic Christian to force anyone else to fast, which makes me curious about the actual circumstances surrounding the case. Although I must say, most people DO come back from Egypt thinner (in a good way) because you drink more water and there is no high-fructose corn syrup in the food or soda.

Posted on 10/08/2010 by

alexandra stepanuk

alexandra stepanuk

I agree with most of your arguments, but I would be careful about making the easy assumption that study abroad experiences in anglophone countries are less eye-opening than study abroad in non-anglophone countries. I know because I used to make the same assumption until I lived in Australia this year. I assumed because Australia was so similar to the United States in comparison to other countries, I would experience relatively little culture shock. However, my time in Australia, mostly in rural areas, challenged my view of the environment and consumption that a year and half in France never challenged. It wasn't the national culture as much as the local setting (city vs. rural) that changed many of my deeper values. So, although most people assume that a student will learn more in China than in Australia, for example, it really depends on the program and the student. I know American students who went to China and only spent time with American, hardly a strong example of cultural exchange. I agree with you that discomfort does not mean danger, but study abroad, regardless of the country, is only as meaningful as the student makes it.

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