LESSONS FROM THE FIELD
George Gmelch, along with other American professors, has run a summer college field school in Barbados for a number of years. They wanted to know what students learned not only about Bajan culture, but their own culture. American students spent part of their summer immersed in a cultural setting different from their own. They lived outside of the towns with local families in order to get a more authentic experience of living in Barbados. Gmelch found that students learned a number of things about American culture from their field experiences.
- Rural vs. Suburban Life – Students began to see animals as food instead of pets, they felt closer to nature and grew accustomed to dealing with bugs and lizards in their rooms. They also recognized that rural life includes a much more closely knit social life than in the suburbs of the U.S. In Barbados, everyone knows everyone else from multiple contexts, there is no anonymity, and entertainment is quite different.
- Pace of Life – Students learned about island time, how to accommodate themselves to a tropical environment (slowing down), and learned how to relax.
- Racial Relations – White students were racial minorities for the first time in their lives. They had to learn to accept people identifying them as white boy or white girl. They were surprised about how openly locals talked about race. Upon returning to the U.S., many were more aware of racial minorities, about their own racial identity, and about discrimination.
- Gender Relations – American women were particularly shocked by how sexualized male/female interactions were in all aspects of Barbadian life. Bajan men were sexually explicit and aggressive. They began to see the subordinate role that women play in both societies, but they saw it much more explicitly in Barbados.
- Class Relations – Most of these middle class American students were oblivious to class differences in Barbados and, to some extent, back home. But because Barbados has quite distinct class differences, with accompanying social norms, students began to be aware of when they transgressed boundaries in their behavior.
- Materialism and Consumption – For most American students, their Bajan host families initially seemed poor. By the time they left, they no longer seemed poor. Rather, they seemed like they had what they needed to live and they seemed to be more satisfied with their lives. Many students actively attempted to be less materialistic upon their return to the States, buying less, giving items away, and making charitable donations.
- New Perspectives on Being American – Many students compared Bajan and American behaviors, norms and customs. They were confronted with open and frank discussions where Bajans expressed anger and dislike of America’s government, its policies and even some of its citizens. While many students defended America against these criticisms, they began to learn about what our government has done and how it is perceived overseas and became less defensive over time. They even began to dislike having contact with American tourists when they did visit the towns or beaches, finding them a bit pushy and rude.
- Education and its Value – Many students returned home with a positive attitude towards education because of their own research experience and learning how important it was to villagers and how it’s not so easy to go to college in many places in the world.