What I learned through university – navigating culture and myself

This post over at Small Hands – Big Ideas made me recall my university days and how everything came out different than planned. And probably even better. I have been to three different full-time universities, and each one gave me something different, which has shaped very distinctively who I am. I started off in Chemnitz, near the Czech border, studying Political Sciences and Intercultural Communication, at that time a revolutionary new study program, which attracted me because of the intercultural implications. Having spent one year in Ecuador at age 16 and after internships in Guatemala and Brazil I was really curious about what science would have to say about my experiences, including culture shock and problems of re-adaptation. I had already worked as a voluntary for years in an exchange organization, including organizing intercultural trainings for exchanges-students-to-be, so the initial plan was to learn the theoretics and stay in that field, training people. But then I learned about third-culture kids (short definition here, academic description here, advantages and disadvantages here), and how the shift between different cultures may enable a person to understand better both cultures, or totally get lost along the way.

Looking back, this is the most interesting theoretical piece I took with me from Chemnitz. Though I spent the most part of my youth in Germany, the year in Ecuador at 16 did shape my world view in more than one way. And it is certainly the reason why I kept going back to Latin America a lot of times (though varying the countries) and ended up living in Spain, with the Brazilian husband. Spain being the best mix between European order and security and Latin American feel and openness, it accommodates us both and kind of does make me a third culture person after all.

And the second most important part I learned: I lived for the first time with a boyfriend (quite common in Germany). It worked out quite fine for 1.5 years until he took off with another girl. It broke my heart at that moment, but looking back, it was exactly the right thing to happen. I was alone again, so nothing was holding me back from spending two semesters abroad in Brazil. And after living with somebody for that long, I learned very well what is important to me in daily life of a relationship. Something that does come in handy once you start living seriously with a new person. And which isn’t really part of the curriculum.

So, next chapter: Brazil. Two semester at the USP-FFLCH (Faculty of Philosophy, Languages and Human Sciences) made me see that Eurocentrism is not only a European thing. I was stunned that my professors at USP referred to the same thinkers as in Germany. I was intrigued that the students were overwhelmingly light-skinned in a country where so many people are a mix of European descendants and African slaves. And I became more aware of myself than ever before. I also took lots of classes that weren’t strictly necessary for my degree (and I can only encourage everybody in college/university to take at least 2 classes each semester which you care about passionately (though you might not be able to use them later). I read Brazilian classics, both from Brazilian authors such as Gilberto Freyre (author of Casa grande e senzala = The Masters and the Slaves) and European authors like Claude Lévy-Strauss (Tristes Tropiques) and I learned to differentiate between the core and periphery, between the own and the other, all from the theoretical perception of the other explaining it to me. Challenging. Revealing. And not easy to explain to everybody else. Especially to somebody who has never seen nor lived with the other. And I would never say that I have experienced the same, but we have had interesting discussions outside of classes which have changed my world view – both on how I see others and how I see myself.

So do explore while you have the time: take classes that are not related to your studies. Go abroad. And ask questions, lots of questions. You might not always get a satisfying answer, but as long as you ask, you can always be surprised again.

2 thoughts on “What I learned through university – navigating culture and myself

  1. Valentina, I am happy to see that my post caused a stir in others to reflect on their own experience. That’s merely what I was doing.

    It sounds like you have had quite the path of change, travel and growth in your college years. It’s inspiring to hear! I really like the part where you mention “but as long as you ask, you can always be surprised again.” Great points!

    1. Grace, thanks for the comment. I was just thinking about how we realize we learned all those things in the retro-perspective. And I even guess that we interpret our own learnings differently depending on where we are along our path. So most probably, if we both were asked about what we learned in a year or two, our highlights will be different. And especially the formative years change a lot in our own perception. I am really curious what I will be telling in the future and whether I can add more lessons that I learned in college, but only realized afterwards.

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