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The Importance of Swim Fins

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June 19, 2019

Heather Barclay Hamir IFSA CEO
Heather Barclay Hamir

Labels have power. We know this when it comes to titles, gendered language, or derogatory terms. Some become positive or negative over time, others remain constant, and still others become inadequate and fall out of use.

In education abroad, like any other profession, we have labels. As we work to enhance the impact of learning abroad and expand participation, we must frame and reframe our work, which includes examining the language we use. A term that merits reexamination is “handholding.”

Years ago, a student asked me for help purchasing a plane ticket. In my own mind, I felt very much like this was handholding, and something she should have been able to figure out. At that time, I believed that the ability to navigate the process was a rite of passage in study abroad, one of many beliefs I’ve since reconsidered.  When we sat down together at my computer to make the purchase, it turned out that not only was the purchasing experience new to her, she didn’t have a credit card.

It had never occurred to me that the experience of purchasing a ticket online might be entirely new because the experience of purchasing anything via credit card was also unfamiliar. My own biases about what she “should” have been able to do limited my ability to think more broadly about the different backgrounds and life situations of my students. By shifting my ideas about what was or was not a reasonable request, I recognized that asking for help was a much better approach than just withdrawing from the program due to lack of experience with certain processes.

Handholding has become a pejorative term within higher education that’s meant to indicate insufficient independence or initiative on the part of students. It creates the impression that some students have a childlike lack of agency, competence, or both. Within education abroad, we use this term with respect to student advising needs, student responsiveness, or for programs with resident staff, particularly if the culture of the host country is perceived to be similar to the U.S. or “easy” to navigate.  Whether it is meant benignly (advice for first-time travelers) or critically (constant reminders for pre-arrival items), the breadth of situations that fall into this category can also mask implicit biases, as my own example illustrates.

With good intentions, new advising approaches or resources intended for under-represented groups are sometimes described as handholding. This type of usage is the most insidious, because it unintentionally diminishes these groups for their lack of experience or specific needs.  As we work toward true inclusion, modes of thinking that reinforce the idea of a “typical” study abroad student subtly undermine the idea that study abroad is for all students, equally and equitably. To reshape participation, perhaps we should start by reshaping our constructs.

The power of labels lies in how we use them. Alaskan Inuits have more than 50 words to describe snow because they see so much more of it and their language reflects a sensitivity to its many forms. As we think more deeply about inclusive excellence, what new constructs do we need to adopt to open our minds to new ways of thinking, capturing nuances we previously overlooked? What does “meeting students where they are” suggest about the way we currently think about their needs and goals?

Like higher education, education abroad is evolving. Fostering individualized, meaningful learning for a wide range of students inherently requires new ways of thinking. I would love to see us develop dozens of words to describe the spectrum of engagement necessary to support such a wonderfully diverse group of learners. I’ll start by adding a recommendation for inclusion: swim fins.

Swim fins are an aid to swimmers, allowing them to move more efficiently through the water. They require effort, and reward effort through increased effectiveness and accomplishment. In education abroad, this metaphor represents those moments where we provide guidance or mentorship to students that allow them to amplify the effect of their own efforts. The idea of swim fins acknowledges that student agency is critical to learning and can be enhanced through supportive strategies at any stage in the process. And unlike young adults who need handholding, no one judges swimmers who use swim fins.

Within the construct of education abroad, swim fins can appear anywhere, from the application process to on-site support. At IFSA, several of our initiatives to support individualized learning, one of our four organizational commitments, can be described as swim fins. From our advising approach, which focuses on student strengths and self-efficacy, to learning plans created before departure and supported while abroad, our goal is to serve as mentors and connectors who empower student growth throughout the education abroad experience.

The best part about swim fins is the way the students respond to them. When we approach students differently, they engage differently. We’ve seen increases in students staying local when they prioritize local friendships over weekend travel. Others identify pre-professional goals, and resident staff mentor them as they secure unique volunteer or research opportunities. In some locations, new strategies have led to greater self-awareness and reduced anxiety about the unknowns of life abroad. This approach works for students in cultures that appear similar to ours and those that seem more distinct; in fact, several of the behavioral changes described above occurred in countries where the value of resident staff is sometimes questioned.

Language creates limits and opportunities. Without the language necessary to differentiate helping behaviors from enabling behaviors, we run the risk of perpetuating modes of thinking that limit our own efficacy as educators. Everyone can use swim fins, and none of us, educators and students alike, are too old to benefit.

Heather Barclay Hamir, Ph.D.
President and CEO