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Health Sciences
SFU Student

An image of the author on a balcony overlooking Spain
While I have developed a deep appreciation for culture diversity, I also inadvertently was able to learn about myself and have a better understanding and appreciation for communication

My international Co-op experience provided me with an incredible perspective on cultural and self awareness, although it wasn’t in the way I initially anticipated. When I made the decision to move abroad, work as an English teacher and live with a host family in Catalonia Spain, I came from a community where I was generally accepted and appreciated. Through years of work, volunteer, and social experiences, I felt I developed a confidence and perspective that allowed me to communicate and connect with others. My motivation to work abroad also extended from my professional goals, since I one day hope to work in different countries and experience different cultures through my career. I thought my move to a new country would be effortless and I would succeed in being able to adapt to a new culture and gain international work experience.

My background equipped me to proceed towards situations with respect and composure – being kind and charismatic but without over stepping my boundaries. This was the mentality I had when entering this new community. The first week with my new family and co-workers seemed promising and positive. The welcome I received from even those who are unfamiliar with foreigners were warm, my host family took me on a trip to the beach and tour around town. The overall excitement and optimism I had was a product of months of anticipation prior to arriving in Spain. However, I realized that as time went on, I was having difficulties connecting and adapting to this new culture I believe this sprouted from the strong language barrier and my inability to communicate with most of my co-workers, as well as the daughter in my host family, resulting in a feeling of disconnection  and discomfort when trying to live my every day life. In addition to that, the work techniques and behaviours I’ve used to be successful in jobs in the past including my interpretation of respect and not being too loud or intense did not translate well to this work setting. Although I completed my job thoroughly and to the best of my abilities, my supervisors were not satisfied. The problem with my host family also created a feeling of detachment to my work environment. Ultimately, one cult issues on top of another eventually snowballed into a situation where I felt unsupported, uncomfortable, and rejected – adversely impacting my relationships, experience, and personal health.

While going through my co-op, I spent so much time blaming myself and highlighting all the things I have done wrong or what I could have done differently, even though it appeared as if everything I would do was not sufficient. Alternatively, I realized what I was experiencing was a classic case of cultures clashing; I was the grape in a bowl of olives. Before my Co-op, I thought that behaviours that were effective and appropriate in Canada would translate in Spain, however that was not the case and acknowledging this was an important step in the understanding different cultures. Anywhere in the world different communities will have their own set of norms, expectations, and ideas of “common sense” and as an outsider, those social standards may not be as obvious. Even in areas that speak the same language, there are different forms of understanding and communicating with one another, and being able to comprehend those differences and adapt is not an easy feat. This is where it is imperative to have self awareness when interacting with others, and recognize that interpretations and understandings may not be clear or concrete. 

An image of two people conversing on the background of different tourist attractions aroung the world.

Additionally, understanding how culture affects communication is not a skill that is easily learned. After I had issues with adapting and understanding the culture I was in, taking time to reflect and look at my situation and perspective made me realize that my main problems were in communication; I could not connect and understand others, and others couldn’t connect to and understand me. The skills required to communicate with one culture will be different than another, so having this awareness and a willingness to adapt is vital. My expectation of working abroad was that I would thrive both socially and professionally, and gain insight on different cultures. While I have developed a deep appreciation for culture diversity, I also inadvertently was able to learn about myself and have a better understanding and appreciation for communication. Having awareness for diversity is crucial for both international and local settings, and the revelations and perspectives I’ve developed will allow me to be well-prepared for the future environments I’m placed in.

SFU Student
Connect with Aileen on LinkedIn
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Mar 2, 2020

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