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Center for Global Education North America

"About seven years ago I became the Director of the Altman Program in International Studies and Business. It's a dual degree program where students get a full degree in business and a full degree in liberal arts with a focus on international studies. We take our rising sophomores to a developing country for a month after their freshman year and most recently we've taken about twenty students every May and June to Vietnam. The Center for Global Education (CGE) is really attuned to the need to try to cultivate cultural competence in the students who study abroad, and learning how to avoid very basic cultural taboos. I remember one taboo in Vietnam is that in this village we go to, you're not supposed to touch children on their heads because they think that that steals their spirit. And I remember the first year I went there, the first thing I did when I saw this cute child was tap him on his head –and he looked at me with this horror in his eyes and it was clear that I had made a pretty severe cultural misstep. So I do think it's important for travelers to educate themselves about cultural norms before they go into a different community, and then practice those norms and be respectful of them. Americans abroad have a tendency just to barge through with their privilege, with their American passports, and act very American with complete disregard for local customs. Now we've shifted how we approach the experience, to talk of it more as an exchange and not 'white men and women going in and fixing a problem for a community that (in theory) could not help themselves.' Instead, we're there to learn from the community. So we've sort of flipped the power dynamic.”