Every year thousands of students from the United States study abroad. Research tells us students experience profound personal growth, significant development of intercultural skills, improved self-confidence in ability to navigate new situations and greater clarity about educational and career goals.
What happens when that study abroad experience is intentionally feminist?
I am currently leading a semester study abroad: “Gender, Race and Class in London” through Global Education Oregon (GEO). The Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) Program at Oregon State University has collaborated with the University of Oregon’s GEO to offer the annual program open to any student enrolled in a U.S. college or university.
Students in the program take two courses with the OSU faculty member in their areas of expertise. My courses are “Gender, Race, Class, & Religion in the U.K.” and “Law & Order U.K.: Gender, Race and Class in British Murder Mysteries & TV Crime Dramas.” The director of the GEO London Centre, Dr. Amanda Milburn, teaches the third class, “A History of Women & Gender in England & Wales.” In addition to feminist content, we employ feminist pedagogies, relying on active learning with students purposeful participation in the construction of knowledge and experiential learning in London.
Every week students participate in typical women and gender studies classroom lectures and discussions—we talk about everything from world religions and the Great Goddess to gender-based violence, the U.K.’s far-right, policing, prison, mining, transgender rights, disability and social class in the U.K. They read British mystery novels and watch British crime dramas provoking conversations about the workings of gender as it intersects with race, sexuality, ability and social class.
We take weekly excursions to places in and around London, relevant to course topics. This term, students have taken a queer history walking tour of Soho and a walking tour of Whitechapel to commemorate the victims of Jack the Ripper; they’ve been to Stonehenge, Canterbury and Colchester Castle where many women were executed as witches. We spent three days in Wales, where many of our highlighted historical events, crime dramas and mystery novels are set; we talked about gendered geographies; and they went down into the Big Pit to learn more about Welsh mining. We’ll soon visit a Buddhist temple, a synagogue and a mosque to hear from practitioners about their faiths and the role of women in their religions. We’ll also visit the Tower of London, Old Bailey and Bletchley Park.
In all three courses, we ask students to think about gender, race, class and other forms of social difference as part of systems of power in the U.K. that unequally advantage and disadvantage people. Inevitably we make comparisons and contrasts with the U.S., so even as students are learning about other histories, cultures and societies, they’re also honing their skills to offer critical feminist analysis, both at home and abroad.
I was curious what the students themselves were making of these feminist perspectives and experiences, so I asked them. Their responses highlight the uniqueness and value of feminist study abroad.
As growing feminists, we are discovering study abroad is an integral part of our collective academic experience. Coming from the United States, we are too often confined to the feminist perspectives cultivated within our own culture and often fail to understand the value global perspectives can have for our understanding of our social position both at home and abroad. Our identities and how we navigate the space we occupy are heavily impacted by our quotidian interactions with the social landscape we find ourselves in. After all, our identities and contributions or disruptions of the status quo are subject to the history and social context of where we are.
As a queer, Latinx person who grew up in a low-income family in the United States, my understanding of systems of power is markedly different than some of my more privileged peers, and yet, while abroad, I am constantly reminded of the ways my understanding is limited if I apply my understanding of U.S. domestic politics to a different political and social landscape. In fact, doing so is quite a reductionist approach that paints oppression worldwide with an erroneous broad stroke, stating it is the same everywhere.
I encourage everyone to look at their social position with a fastidious eye and pull from sources you may not be familiar with or entirely comfortable with. Being able to apply our knowledge of hegemonic structures of power transnationally and trans-culturally, we can better understand the inner workings of the systems that continue to denigrate and oppress us. Feminism, critical race and other theoretical tools are too often left out of mainstream educational programs, yet they are exigent for understanding our social position and, more importantly, understanding how we can push back against such pernicious systems.
In the field of women, gender and sexuality studies, we learn we are often only as knowledgeable of systems of power, privilege and oppression as we encourage ourselves to be. As I have continued to delve deeper into the subject matter and reflect on how my own experiences have allowed me an understanding of these systems, it has become increasingly clear my awareness has been limited by the geographic, social and politically constructed borders in which these systems of power reside. The overarching goal of WGSS is to work to acquire the tools and skills to transcend these borders so we might engage a more diverse group of perspectives to continue to push the boundaries of our activist knowledge and abilities.
Traveling to London has been my opportunity to take my education beyond the realms of the familiar. In my courses, I’ve accrued valuable knowledge of justice and equity through untold histories and stories, many of which stretch themselves to several corners of the world. In pushing myself outside of my comfort zone and studying abroad, I’ve enriched my education by engaging with these untold stories face-to-face. I believe there are lessons we can only learn from experience and by coming to the United Kingdom, I am becoming further equipped with important tools and skills that aid in making the most out of this educational opportunity. Allowing me to challenge myself and my own understanding, so I can work to amplify the voices of those who have been and continue to be silenced by those in power.
What connects a retired coal miner, a countryside tour guide and an art gallery assistant all from different parts of the U.K.? Each has had unprompted feminist conversations with me. As students of women, gender and sexuality studies, we are taught to approach things with a feminist lens. We also must be aware not everyone approaches experiences or conversations the same way. One of the clear benefits of studying abroad is it creates the opportunity to connect with new people and learn firsthand about different cultures; however, there is so much more. Studying abroad allows there to be a structure to find people and connect with them. Using our feminist lens, we can further appreciate the cross-cultural conversations we find ourselves immersed in. There is only so much we can learn in a classroom and deeper understanding comes from listening to stories of lived experiences.
Thinking back to the conversations I had with the retired coal miner, countryside tour guide and art gallery assistant, the single unifying question they asked me was what I was studying. The study abroad experience is remarkably different when approached with a feminist lens.
If I did not come into this experience with a feminist focus, I know I would have enjoyed my time; however, I am getting more out of the experience simply because I am a women, gender and sexuality studies major. I have been able to have deep conversations with my classmates and strangers simply because I am open to the experience and their thoughts. Studying abroad is not easy, especially during a global pandemic—nonetheless, my degree courses have emphasized the importance of transnational studies, which is demonstrated through my experiences in London.
Studying abroad for my Gender, Race and Class program has allowed me to become immersed in the topics I am learning about, thus enhancing my knowledge intake. Reading books on crime, watching British crime dramas and diving into different time periods in specific locations through a classroom setting provides students with ample knowledge of the subjects.
In addition to that, physically traveling to the places we’ve focused on in class is further enriching my understanding of each topic. For instance, after learning about women working in the mines in 19th century Wales, my class took the train to the Big Pit in Cardiff. Here I had the opportunity to have a one-on-one conversation with a retired miner who provided a unique background of mining through his own experiences. In a separate class session, my peers and I discussed the presence of the female goddess as opposed to the better-known male god in religious history. After investigating the topic, we went to the British Museum and searched for examples of statues, paintings and any other art acknowledging the goddess’s place in history.
Conversing with experts on their own firsthand experiences on the topics and visiting landmarks and specific places discussed in class have allowed me to develop a new and unique perspective on gender, race and class in the U.K. This study abroad program has not only allowed me to travel around the U.K. and engage with experts based on my course curriculum, but it has also provided me with a better understanding of the topics. I can confidently say the knowledge I am developing through personal experience in London is far more profound than a classroom setting at home would have allowed, thus providing me with a more well-rounded view of my studies.
“What are you studying in London?” is a question that fuels me every time I’m asked. After responding “Gender, Race and Class,” the reaction reaffirms that intersectionality is the foundation of these studies. Our identity has knocked us down a step on the hierarchical scale that measures privilege in our world at some point in our lives. Our responsibility as activists is to break these identities apart and experience firsthand how each one impacts the others and how they all contribute to a very complex society pleading for belonging.
I believe a formal education in women, gender and sexuality studies is a tool for understanding, acceptance and change. How is it we know a tool is effective? We use that tool and apply it to a problem. This study abroad has allowed us to apply the tools given to us to real-world scenarios, current and historical. We can see what has worked, failed and hasn’t been attempted through these scenarios. We are the surgeons of humanity, trying to repair the damages inflicted by our ancestors while at the same time perfecting our technique so our tomorrow is an improvement from yesterday.
Much like the importance of views beyond the male lens, there is also a view beyond the American lens. In fact, there are endless lenses we can view through study abroad, given the student fully immerses themselves in a culture utterly foreign to them. After all, isn’t that what we ask from each other when we seek inclusion? We ask others to see life through our lens. What better opportunity than through study abroad?
Feminist study abroad provides a unique educational opportunity for students to appreciate and learn from another culture, while at the same time deepening skills of feminist analysis and imagining possibilities for social change. After only four weeks in the program, we can see the impact the experience has had for these students is significantly different from traditional study abroad.
Study abroad is often a life-changing experience for students. Feminist study abroad also helps them think about how they can participate in changing the world toward inclusion, equity and justice.
If you’re a student or you know a student who might be interested in the fall semester Gender, Race and Class in London program be sure to contact Dr. Susan Shaw at [email protected]