By: Jennifer Ward
A headshot of Priscilla Chan. (Photo by: Ray Cheung)
The Purchase Dance Conservatory can be numerous things. For some, it could be a place of learning and growing as a performer, and for others, it could be a place of anxiety and stress. It could also become a home away from home for foreign exchange students.
“Knowing that you are a foreigner stepping into a foreign land. That’s kind of daunting,” said Priscilla Chan, a junior dance major studying abroad from Hong Kong. “I would say getting to meet people and finding ways to connect with people who grow up in a different background than you, I think that’s something difficult at first. Once you try to understand people better you start to find yourself blending into the community better.”
Studying abroad is a very common concept among college students. The chance to get off their campus, which can feel isolating at times, and discover not only a whole new school but a whole new country can be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity - and might be their only chance to travel overseas.
However, as much as this idea may be ideal for some, the reality of it can be hard. Many students face the struggle of not only adjusting to a new country but also the barriers that come with that. Language, culture, and finances can become a major roadblock for those with hopes of studying in another country, and can even deter them from trying for the experience.
The Dance Conservatory can be a safe space for students coming to study abroad. (Photo by: Alayna Fisher)
Language barriers become a major factor when it comes to students deciding if they want to study abroad. The fear of not being able to understand what is being said in the classroom can weigh heavily on students. However, Purchase faculty embrace the challenge of helping students to acclimate.
“A lot of the time they’ll start with ‘my English isn’t good’ or ‘I’m not good at this. ’I feel in that moment the students and I really try to congratulate them, and praise them and lift them up for what they’re doing because it’s already so amazing and courageous to be in a completely new environment,” said Michelle Thompson Ulerich, a professor in the Dance Conservatory.
According to Beatriz Martin-Ruiz, associate director of admissions, potential students have to achieve a certain score in the College entrance English exam in order to be admitted. This is followed by an English placement test to ensure students are placed into the correct English classes. Some students are able to go directly into college writing classes, while others take EAL classes in preparation. EAL classes are also available for study-abroad students looking to improve their English.
“The academic support we provide and their social experience on campus go hand-in-hand,” said Martin-Ruiz.
When it comes to studying dance, understanding what is being said is made easier when it comes to studying movement. “It also helps that we have this common language that we’re using, the common language of dance,” said Thompson Ulerich.
Finances also can become a struggle for students coming to study abroad. Having to pay for the semester but also the added expense of having to buy everything you own brand new if they are unable to ship overseas for a semester, along with any other expenses while living in another country for months is not sustainable for many.
Cultural differences can also make a major difference for students studying abroad. The adjustment to food, society, and etiquette can be a jarring shift. “Every day there’s a culture shock. Every day there’s someone saying ‘I love your accent!’ or they try to copy our accent so we copy yours back. I love it,” said Isabella Gaynor, a junior dance major from London. “Culture shocks like the police presence, and how you say different words. Colonialism! So many people bring that up. I’m like, ‘I’m sorry England did that.’”
A headshot of Isabella Gaynor. (Photo by: Drew Tommons)
This experience becomes almost like a test for those who wish to study abroad. Being away from what you know and studying dance with a new group of people can be fearful for some, but gives them the knowledge and experience they need in order to know if they can do it.
“To be an exchange student gives me a taste,” said Yoko Wong, a junior dance major from Hong Kong. “Am I suitable to live overseas? Can I professionally work with people speaking a totally different language with me? I can let myself know, in this situation, if can I work well.”
A still of Yoko Wong performing. (Photo by: Ar Liu and Steven Huen)
This experience, however, doesn’t have all cons. The learning experience that a dancer can gain from studying abroad is something they can’t gain by staying put. Learning different terminology, and styles of dance, seeing shows, and learning a new style of education can be major for a dancer.
“It’s very self-driven and self-motivated back home. But here, it’s very disciplined by the school, very intense, bang bang bang you have to be good at this,” said Gaynor. “Whereas back home it’s like you’re on your own personal journey, we want you to be good but only in what you want to be good at.”
Not only can dancers gain experience from their professors, but the influence of peers can be the biggest impact of them all. Learning from those around you, picking up on new possible habits, and gaining connections and advice from those with different worldly experiences can help not only educate international students but also bring them together.
“I believe in the value of a Global Education because I have experienced its life-changing impact myself,” said Martin-Ruiz. “I consider myself very lucky to be a part of a community that supports and encourages similar experiences for our students, and one that welcomes students from other parts of the world.”
“I like to look to the students who are used to being at Purchase saying, ‘We need to help these people out, look out for them, help them out if they’re lost,’” said Thompson Ulerich.
Through all of the gained experiences, both on and off the dance floor, the dance community can become a family to those both from the United States, and other countries. The home-away-from-home mentality grows strong in the community as they bond over the biggest thing they have in common. Dance.
“When you come to New York, or even the U.S., there are people from all different kinds of backgrounds but they all live together, they all stay together, they all go to school together,” said Chan. “People tend to unite under one passion. That really oversteps all other boundaries because you all share something and you’re all here for the same reasons. I think that really overpowers something and the differences people have.”
With the heavy workload of the Dance Conservatory, along with making friends and perfecting their craft, international and exchange students are left with little time to even miss being home. This leaves them with a lot of life-changing experiences.
“I have FaceTime every day with family, but I’m quite OK living far away from them, and I didn’t expect that,” said Wong. “I do miss them, but with FaceTime and such I feel alright.”
Those with study abroad experience look forward to promoting what they experienced, and students like Chan, Wong, and Gaynor encourage others to take this opportunity if they can and improve their craft in another country.
“It’s nice to be an exchange student. It’s a great experience for me, and it’s something I won’t forget,” said Wong.
"I love the differences; the more I’m here, the more it feels like a foreign country,” said Gaynor. “So much new stuff. But when I first came, it was like I was in a movie because we watch so many American films; it feels like you know America. This is exactly what I expected. Then it’s like the more you’re here, it’s like, ‘Oh, wow, this is new.’”