How US Culture Makes Administering Education Abroad Less Joyful

Cuenca fans! (Courtesy of
Cuenca fans! (Courtesy of

sadadministratorUS Americans like rules.  They also like money.

I was reminded of this when I attended the Cuenca-Quito fútbol (soccer) match this past week in Cuenca, Ecuador. It was a major match because if Cuenca lost, they were going to be downgraded to another league. I was overjoyed simply because I thought that my husband (Tony) and I had missed the season and alas, we stumbled upon a fan rally while walking around Cuenca on a quiet afternoon. We quickly rushed to the stadium assuming we’d have a hard time getting tickets. We didn’t. We were ridiculously early (I know, I know, we’re US Americans and think way too much about time!), so we settled into our seats, sat back and quietly practiced the fine art of observation.

Deportivo_Cuenca
The Cuenca sport logo.

What I quickly noticed was that there were no individual seats. There were long rows of cement benches with faded yellow lines indicating where one could sit. These were ignored as crowds of people eventually made their way into the stadium, as we sat “cheek to cheek” with our new neighbors. When the rows filled up and the rain started, people who weren’t in the section with a roof joined us in the aisles. If you had to go to the bathroom or to get food, you climbed around people. No one minded or complained.

I also quickly noticed the lack of “in your face” marketing. There were very limited major sales ads. The primary one was for a banco (bank) – a billboard in the distance listed their name and there was a blow up logo in the center of the field that kept flopping around in the wind. There were a few other small billboards around the stadium and none were electronic, so you hardly noticed them. The scoreboard didn’t work and we didn’t see a large timer or score the entire game, so there was no advertising there to speak of. Some people walked in carrying small radios with earbuds so they could listen in to the announcer if they wanted to. You certainly couldn’t hear him in the stadium because the chants of the crowd were so loud (and enjoyable) that it was simply impossible. At half time, two pretty girls walked around the track around the field in blue dresses. Apparently, they were with Ford automobiles.

Mote sucio – a traditional Ecuadorian dish made with corn.

The “marketing” of food consisted of a woman with a box of snacks at the base of the stairs. If you wanted to eat, there was woman selling a local dish called “mote sucio.” The only people we saw wearing logos were the fans. Nearly everyone was wearing red shirts, making us easy to spot because we had no idea we’d be at the stadium and just showed up, white shirts and all.

The rules were simple – go to the stadium, have fun, be mindful of each other and watch a great game.

Cuenca fans! (Courtesy of
Cuenca fans! (Courtesy of Barrabrava.net)

As international educators, we often speak of how sojourners can see the home country in a more clear light when abroad. Our innocent adventure to see fútbol suddenly became a lens for me to see my own playing field at home.

These observations from the stadium that day reminded me of why being an education abroad administrator was not as much fun as it once was…”back in the day”. It informed me about why I had really started to dislike – or perhaps detest – the administrative hoops I had to jump through to send a student abroad.

It was the paperwork.

It was endless.

The paperwork became a growing problem because in the US because we have created a culture that demands it, along with other priorities and values that create a lot of grief for administrators (as well as our “customers” – the students).

Here are some US American culture values and how, in my humble opinion, they are taking the focus away from students’ learning and making administrators feel frustration instead of what should be inherent joy in the experience abroad that we help to facilitate:

Individualism and instant gratification: Our mentality in the US is that “I paid for it…and now you must deliver and not only satisfy me, you must do so above and beyond so I don’t jump ship and run to a competitor” or have my parents call you…or worse, your boss. And then there is the ultimate slap in the face – emailing the President’s office (horror)! People in the US don’t care what they sign these days; they will complain until they can’t complain anymore if they feel their individual rights and demands are not being honored.

Branding: We want to be known. We want to be admired. We want to come first. We want to stand out. As administrators, we are under pressure to ensure that our programs “run.” This means that we do things like encourage our students to wear our logos abroad, despite it screaming “I’m an American.”

Laws and Rules: While we are eager to create unique, challenging (academic) programs for students, we are terrified of allowing students to participate fully in life abroad because it may mean a lawsuit if someone is injured, imprisoned, robbed or killed. The only problem is that we have become obsessed with these concerns to the point of limiting the learning and cultural experiences. Here in Ecuador, I expect to be riding in the back of a pick up truck, wind blowing through my hair, at some point. Why? Because that is common here… and if I want to experience the smaller towns with local friends, that may be required. I don’t want to miss a cultural experience.

Money: We are driven by revenue and this focus has grown due to budget issues in higher education. Culturally, we are taught to consider “keeping up with the Joneses”.  We fail, repeatedly, to realize that if we scaled back and focused on the academics (and not the tourism) we might actually be able to slash budgets and focus on EDUCATION abroad, not “some” education and a barrels full of pricey tourism and photo opportunities that we can show to our friends and families.

We are so busy developing, tweaking and confirming receipt of forms that we have lost the ability to simply enjoy the fact that we are sending students abroad to facilitate more awareness of our world.

The joy in our work has been diminished because we are mired down in forms, forms and more forms. And our culture demands this.

And today, as I write this from Cuenca, it just makes me feel sad.

PageLines- Missyheadshot2.jpegAbout the Author: Missy Gluckmann is the founder of Melibee Global. She and her husband Tony are living in Ecuador for 2 months so that they can both learn Spanish. They also intend to try every variation of gluten free empanadas de verde that they can get their hands on! You can learn more about why she built Melibee Global and her background here.