Cultural Exchange From Home

When the coronavirus canceled his Indonesia study abroad program, Prof. Gareth Barkin created a virtual cultural exchange

Picture this: Inside a bustling mega mall in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, 10 Puget Sound students are trying to get their bearings. Anthropology professor Gareth Barkin has just tasked them with talking to the shoppers—many of whom are locals and don’t speak English—about hijabs, specifically how the religious headscarf has become high-fashion among young, Indonesian Muslims. It’s an unfamiliar topic for the students, who are already outside their comfort zones in a foreign country.

It's a real scene from Barkin’s Southeast Asia field school course, but a similar one won’t be happening this year. Due to concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, Puget Sound canceled all summer study abroad programs in March. But, unwilling to scrap the course entirely—and the work of developing its curriculum and selecting and building relationships with the Indonesian students who would take the course alongside Puget Sound students—he reinvented it as a virtual cultural exchange.

Already unique in its approach, the field school has been engineered by Barkin specifically to help students not just travel, but build cross-cultural relationships. Unlike many other study abroad programs, in which American students spend most of their time touring and learning with American peers, Barkin’s program puts Puget Sound students and Indonesian college students together for three weeks as classmates—living, learning, and socializing. The Indonesian students are chosen through a years-long, painstaking process in concert with the U.S. Embassy and earn course credit just as the Puget Sound students do.

At the mall, where Barkin tasked his students with talking to locals, Indonesian students were paired with their American classmates to help break down language and culture barriers. “The hidden agenda,” says Barkin, “is that they’re not just talking to shoppers to get local perspectives, but they’re talking to each other. The whole time, they’re getting each other’s thoughts and opinions.”

Prof. Gareth Barkin
Prof. Gareth Barkin believes that the shift to a virtual experience was valuable in accomplishing the ultimate goal of a study abroad program: undermining misunderstandings and stereotypes.

This year, instead of venturing out into the marketplaces and public spaces of Indonesia, the 10 Puget Sound students and 10 Indonesian students paired up via video call once a week for five weeks. Separated by nearly 8,000 miles, they read about and discussed one of five topics: religion, gender/sexuality, ecology/environment, ethnicity/identity, and power/politics. The topics allowed for students, both American and Indonesian, to articulate their own viewpoints and discover others’.

In her conversations, Kiara Kramer ’21, a sociology and anthropology major with minors in biology and studio art, was struck by the cultural similarities that arose while discussing gender and sexuality. In Indonesia, light skin and long, straight hair fit conventional beauty standards, she explains, while the dark skin and curly hair of people who live in Papua is looked down upon. “This reminded me of the ‘Black Is Beautiful’ movement that started in the ’60s to expand past racist definitions of beauty in mainstream culture,” she says. She and her class partner also discussed how, despite Indonesia’s deep-rooted history of accepting gender fluidity, the Suharto regime’s suppression of transgender identities from 1967 to 1998 had long-lasting effects still felt today. “It made me wonder about the long-term consequences of the Trump administration’s proposal defining gender and sex as homologous,” Kramer says.

The wide range of discussion topics meant that while some conversations were rooted in current events, others were far more personal. Charlotte Fron ’20, an international political economy major and global development studies minor, says the course stripped away superficial distractions that come with travel—ones she experienced herself last year while on a study abroad trip to Europe. “There wasn’t a cultural exchange,” she says. “It’s very much like you’re in a museum, and you’re walking around as a spectator. Because you’re with a group all from American schools, you trap yourself in a bubble and don’t even talk to locals. You come back with evidence of travel, not immersion.”

Like Fron, Barkin believes that the shift to a virtual experience was valuable in accomplishing the ultimate goal of a study abroad program: undermining misunderstandings and stereotypes. “By making these personal connections and having difficult conversations with Indonesian students from different backgrounds—even online—the students had some of that monolithic thinking fractured,” he says. “That’s a goal we want from study abroad, but we don't always get.”


By Anneli Haralson
Photos courtesy of Gareth Barkin
Published June 4, 2020