Not Waving but Drowning: Integration Revisited

Dec 8, 2020 10:00:00 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

"Thoughts on Education Abroad" is a monthly column written by CAPA The Global Education Network's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.


Education abroad is about more than just taking courses in another place; it's an opportunity to meet the academic, personal, and professional aspirations of our students. In this month's column, Dr. Mike Woolf writes about the various university education models and student experiences around the world.

1. Introduction

Almost 20 years ago, when I had dark hair and a waistline, I published an essay that was inspired by the poet Stevie Smith (1902–1971). [1] Stevie Smith was an odd, unsung figure, somewhere between Emily Dickinson and Dorothy Parker but really an original who lived in the same house in north London from the age of 3 until her death at 69. For most of her adult life, she worked as a secretary. I was 16 years old when I went to hear her read her poetry at the Royal Court Theatre in London. I was profoundly moved by “Not Waving but Drowning.”

Stevie Smith Poetry ReadingStevie Smith poetry reading (1963).

In later years, this poem seemed to me to offer a useful metaphor for understanding what used to be an unchallenged orthodoxy in education abroad. If we have moved somewhat towards a more critical exploration of our own assumptions, there remain vestiges of the declaration made by the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland: “Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." [2]

Queen of Hearts

Memories of Stevie Smith took me back to the one of those impossible things before breakfast: the idea that direct enrollment offers a kind of holy baptism into the mysteries of foreign seas. I thought then, and still think now, that baptism may also look like drowning. In these troubled times and as we reevaluate our work, it seemed timely to revisit some my more youthful scribbles.

2. A Raised Arm

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning!
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning. [3]

Stevie Smith’s poem demonstrates potential ambiguities inherent in gesture. A sign of happy recognition could in fact be a despairing signal of impending oblivion. This metaphor suggests a tool, albeit a rather dramatic one, through which to re-examine one of the influential ideologies of study abroad.

To parody George Orwell: “Integration Good. Separation Bad.” At the heart of this ideology is the notion that direct enrollment into a host university is an ideal; the degree of integration is a measure of quality. Of course, the model has much to be said for it. There are students who will thrive and prosper but it does not, I contend, offer an ideal. In foreign-language communities, the objective of full integration is frequently unrealistic and unworkable. The majority of US students need help to translate their experiences. Even those with reasonable language skills will struggle in a second-language classroom, floundering in a sea of unfamiliar sound and intonation, drowning in oceans of academic meta-language.

The need to mediate the student’s engagement abroad may be conceived, in this context, as an unfortunate, but necessary transitional step en route to Nirvana. However, as an orthodoxy or gold standard, full integration is profoundly problematic. Even where no language barrier exists, direct enrollment into a foreign university is not the only mechanism through which education abroad students can both achieve Enlightenment and avoid drowning (even though we may insist on telling them that they are waving).

Let me offer another metaphor: visiting the British Museum. I inflicted this on my unfortunate children with cruel frequency. I selected a room or two to visit, explained what we’d be seeing, and schlepped them around. I did this because I felt that otherwise, in this, unfamiliar environment, they would gain little beyond tired feet. My museum metaphor intends to demonstrate that we all need to be steered towards insight or, as old Socrates put it, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” In education abroad, the student needs, I believe, similarly, to be guided in an intentional way. In most cases, this will involve deviation from the holy mantras of unmediated integration.

3. The Student Experience

 Around the City 3


a) Where they go

It is in the commercial interest of host universities to argue that education abroad students are best served by full integration. That view is, however, somewhat problematic in so far as national education systems are designed primarily and properly to serve the interests of domestic students. These systems are not neutral; they reflect and, in some cases, create a national ethos. Entrance into these systems may not be as simple as it seems. You can certainly throw students in but there is no guarantee that they will float, let alone swim.

For one thing, the function of a university is not a matter of global agreement. The purpose might, at one end of a theoretical spectrum, be metaphorically “theological.” The primary intent is to purvey some form of canonical truth. At the other end of this spectrum is what we might call the “liberal” model where the object is, at least to some degree, to offer alternative and conflicting narratives to challenge the notion, ultimately, of truth itself. US students may unintentionally offend faculty in a host university by challenging the professor’s view. They have imported a “liberal” learning mode into a “theological” environment. By way of painful example, at the University of Ghana, Accra, this was a critical part of student orientation that frequently passed unnoticed by eager students anxious to get into vigorous debate. Making peace with outraged faculty required the negotiating skills of a Dr Kissinger.

Equally, a visiting student from a “theological” learning environment may be unnerved by “liberal” learning techniques. Challenged to challenge, the student subsides into bewildered silence. Instead of sitting at the feet of the master and gaining insight into the holy grail of knowledge, they are confronted by a devil’s advocate, an agitator who encourages and expects dispute. The silence of Japanese lambs in American classrooms may derive not from language limitations alone. It is an expression of distressed disappointment that this professor, who is not even wearing a tie, does not know the correct answer.

Nobody is to blame but the student needs intervention from some person or agency who understands difference and can mediate between conflicting modes of learning.

While that is demonstrably true in some locations, it might be argued there are no such barriers when movement is between “liberal” environments, the US, the UK or Australia, for example. If that were the case, there would be no need for host universities to do more than put students in classes. Instead, in practice host universities spend considerable resources in creating exceptional provisions for education abroad students: special arrangements for examinations (in case the semester system does not “fit” the domestic term), social programs, exclusive courses, and so on. In other words, they recognize that integration needs to be qualified to attract students (and dollars), and to maximize the value of their experience.

On a more practical level, the US student generally enters an academic environment abroad for a semester or less. When they arrive at a host university, friendships have been made; associations embedded. Proximity does not ensure integration. From a home student perspective, an American is hardly a rarity in most parts of the world. Their engagement with the institution is limited both by time and commitment. Their learning style might be disruptive or even intimidating.

This is not to suggest, of course, that US students are unwelcome or that they cannot make inroads into the host community. It is, on the contrary, to indicate that engagement is best served by mediation and creative compromise. Anthropology offers a good working principle. The investigator is a participant-observer. A participant engages; an observer disengages so as to create the distance required for productive reflection.

b) What students learn

“We had come three thousand miles in search of Europe and had found America”
—Malcolm Cowley, Exiles Return (1961)

A common assumption is that group cohesion among visiting US students (sometimes characterized as a bubble) is necessarily negative because it acts as a barrier to contact with the host society. This ignores the simple fact that significant learning takes place within the group. As Cowley indicates, an integral factor in the learning experience is, precisely, the capacity to re-discover America, born out of, and modified by, experience overseas. This act of imagination and intellectual introspection is enriched by interactions with peer participants.

In short, a host university cannot be expected to address the fact that our students are Americans and that they necessarily perceive the host country through certain expectations and perspectives. How students learn, classroom etiquette, university assumptions, faculty teaching strategies: these are all factors that substantially differ from system to system.

Furthermore, there are diverse attitudes concerning the responsibility that universities have with regards to pastoral care: in one view, the university is primarily, if not solely, concerned with teaching undergraduates. However, in contrast, American colleges and universities assume holistic responsibility for the welfare, morality, wellbeing, and so on of their students. This is not a question of quality or humanity, but of tradition. When I taught at the University of Venice, the idea that the job of a professor included worrying about the psychology or moral health of students was alien; responsibility began and ended in academic space. While competition for students and financial priorities may have modified this approach in parts of Europe, many traditional institutions offer far fewer student-life services than those customary in the USA. A gap between expectations may well be problematic and, in a crisis, critical.

One needs also to consider the ultimate purpose of education abroad. Objectives are not limited to the study of academic disciplines. A core topic is “abroad” itself. A local student at the University of Florence will not necessarily expect to be engaged in a study of Italian society. Education abroad, however, has a more expansive agenda: an obligation to offer participants insights into the situational environment, the experience of the US student therein, what we learn about our own country when we leave it, comparative social codes, and so on. Students have elected to go “abroad” and that creates distinctive learning objectives.

There are a number of ways to approach those, but an obvious mechanism is to create programs or courses designed specifically for education abroad participants. A comparative element will build upon what is familiar and move towards what is unfamiliar. Distinctive programming also creates the potential for innovative, interdisciplinary, and experiential provision. The center model permits learning strategies that are specifically tailored to the fact of shared national origin and relative unfamiliarity with the host environment. In practice, guided opportunities for experiential learning through field trips, internships, and other out-of-classroom activities are integrated into a center program in a manner that would not align with domestic educational pedagogies. Education abroad goes beyond the classroom in ways that might not apply to courses taught to local students.

Education abroad is about more than just taking courses in another place. If a student chooses to study in location X, they are naturally and properly interested in that place. Creating pathways into unfamiliar space is a critical obligation.

4. In Defense of the Center

There are many ways through which education abroad can meet the aspirations of participants. At one end of a spectrum of possibility are those programs that serve only the US student abroad. This is still sometimes designated, negatively, as an “island.” A more neutral and accurate term is center program. While not serving every need, the model has much to teach about the significance of difference. The assumption that direct enrollment is in some manner better or more authentic ignores a number of important benefits that these programs bring from the perspective of a US university:

a) Calendar

The center program escapes the tyranny of the foreign academic year. The question of academic calendars is problematic. The Asian academic year does not align with that of the USA. Even within Europe, no consistency exists. Academic calendars are shaped by national and religious holidays, by custom and practice that tends, broadly, to separate North and South, Protestant and Catholic, Europe. Creating cohesion between diverse systems is, at least, a complex aspiration. The center program serves the needs of US institutions directly in the timing of the semester and allows for shorter or more flexible periods of study.

b) Course Weighting

Furthermore, there are fundamental difference in the philosophy of course weighting between the US and most of Europe. Broadly the US measures credit through class contact hours, whereas the English university, for example, commonly weighs courses according to workload. With the exception of Spain, European higher education generally tends to use workload as measure of academic value. There is, of course, no right or wrong in this matter but merely a problem of difference that is resolved in the center model.

c) Uniformity of Welfare Provision

As we are aware, US universities operate in a litigious environment and are subject to many burdensome legal requirements. Education abroad demands a duty of care beyond even that required on the American campus. In the center program, the US university can anticipate services that meet their expectations (neocolonialism?). In crisis responses to Covid 19, this factor became of critical significance.

Students studying abroad are reasonably enough more vulnerable and more needy; they are emerging adults in unfamiliar environments who have been taught in nurturing and supportive environments. In those circumstances, a fully integrated model becomes less obviously ideal if compared to a center program where services are designed specifically and specially to meet the expectations of US higher education.

d) The Language Question

In non-English speaking countries, the academic argument for some form of separate provision becomes even more apparent. My own assumptions are that: a) there is a benefit in increasing participation in study abroad and b) a relatively limited number of students from the USA have sufficient language abilities to integrate fully into classes in most non-English-speaking universities. Those students who have such ability should, where possible, continue to immerse themselves in the linguistic community within which they study. That said, such experience will be available only to an elite, and only within a relatively limited number of language communities.

If we maintain the notion that the gold standard is direct enrollment into an overseas university, the mass of American students will either be precluded from studying in second-language environments or their studies will be seen as having lesser value. Only very specialist students could, for example, study in universities in Hungary, Indonesia, or the Czech Republic. If integration is a measure of excellence in international education, those who study in minority-language environments in English will have their experience designated as second rate. The desire to explore areas where there is little expectation that participants can become highly proficient in the host language should not be denigrated or characterized as inferior. A student with a desire to study post-Communist Europe in Budapest, for example, is not a second-class academic citizen.

5. Conclusion: Waving Not Drowning

2019-03-London_London-Aaron Wong-Canon-Classroom1

At CAPA, we have respect for mediated direct enrollment. Indeed, we offer students opportunities to enter into overseas universities while at the same time benefitting from services and courses offered at our centers, including internships. The real alternatives are not between integration in overseas universities or isolation in a center program. The actual experience of US students in European universities is rarely that of untroubled integration. The experience of US students in good center programs is rarely that of isolation.

Students in a host university overseas are inevitably predominantly drawing their insights from classroom-based learning (a classroom is a classroom is a classroom whether it be in New York, Paris, or Accra). In a center program, the walls of the classroom can be exploded and the foreign landscape itself becomes learning space. In this context, opportunities to encounter the host environment may, paradoxically, be greater on the “island” with many and varied bridges leading into surrounding space.

Commitment to a pure ideology of full integration will benefit only a minority of students. We need to get away from the conceit that we serve the “brightest and the best” if we are to make a significant difference. Growth in education abroad is painfully slow. Serving a larger mass of students and countering the problem of under-representation requires recognition of diverse needs and expectations. To return to Stevie Smith, our obligation is to create conditions within which our students may indeed be cheerfully waving, rather than desperately drowning, in international waters.


[1] “Not Waving but Drowning: Arguments against Immersion in Study Abroad,” International Educator, v.X., No. 4, Fall 2001.

[2] Lewis Carroll’s novel of 1865 was indeed the inspiration for another obscure, ancient, and unread text. The half-mad Queen is remembered in: Michael Woolf, “Impossible Things before Breakfast: Myths in Education Abroad,” Journal of Studies in International Education 11, 2007, pp.496-509.

[3] Stevie Smith, “Not Waving but Drowning,” New Selected Poems, Boston, MA: New Directions, 1988.


Thanks Mike!

CAPA_Michael Woolf Headshot

Dr. Mike Woolf is the Deputy President for Strategic Development here at CAPA. His unique role at CAPA takes him around the world to conferences as a frequent presenter and attendee. He serves on a number of boards and committees, including the Curriculum Committee of the Forum on Education Abroad, the Editorial Boards of Frontiers and the Journal of Studies in International Education, EAIE’s Knowledge Development Task Force, and Braun Stiftung für Internationalen Austausch. He has written widely and has published extensively on international education and cultural studies. Most recently, he published work aimed at critically reviewing the core assumptions of study abroad. 'Thoughts on Education Abroad' is a monthly column of short essays sharing his thoughts and expertise on the subject.


Topics: International Education