I went to college in Romania, studying Psychology at the University of Bucharest. From the beginning I was involved in extracurricular activities, from the school to the national level. I didn’t even think about them as extracurricular – I just loved doing things, working with students from other disciplines, coordinating teams, organizing events and going to training sessions where professionals inspired us to dream big.
In 2006, when I first experienced American culture during a summer trip, I was impressed by an educational system based on the liberal arts principles I had always instinctively pursued. It reminded me of the Renaissance, when a person was encouraged to develop a variety of talents and when great ideas came from combining disciplines in new and exciting ways.
The value of bringing together different ideas and approaches stuck with me when I returned to Romania, and continued to define my approach when I came back to America to partake in that liberal arts education. This system has impressed me so much not only because of its idealistic educational principles but also for more pragmatic reasons: In the changing reality of the 21st century, single-mindedness and studying only one field are not sufficient to prepare ourselves for the future.
Time and again I’ve found the value of connecting my academic pursuits to activities outside the classroom and doing those things that, although not “required,” turned out to be essential.
Connecting with other disciplines
I study International Education Policies and Management at Peabody College, Vanderbilt University. However, after the first semester, I wanted to broaden my academic horizon beyond my own school so I took a class on Poverty Alleviation at Owen Graduate School of Management. As part of the class, I went on a study trip to Guatemala, which was led by a multidisciplinary team of faculty from the Law and Business schools and from the Education and the Anthropology departments.
Vanderbilt University encourages its students to gain multidisciplinary experience and the trip helped me understand why. We worked with an organization on microfinance projects to provide housing and better education for a marginalized community near Guatemala City. The organization’s initial goal was to help children attend school, but it started building houses when it realized that those who live in permanent housing are more likely to have better school attendance.
We were faced with a real life problem where inequities in housing and education were interconnected. That required the synergy of our different disciplines and backgrounds. While practical solutions often require this sort of cooperation, the structure of academics often encourages overspecialization.
Academic disciplines are separated so students can develop a deep understanding of their field, and they develop a specialized vocabulary that can be hard for people from other departments to understand. More than that, disciplines tend to see each other in limited, simplistic representations. For example, those who study Education are seen as idealists who want to change the world without ever worrying about budgets, while those who study Business are seen as mundane, pragmatic and only concerned with making money.
However, world problems don’t care much about the way disciplines are separated or the way we perceive each other, and they often require complex solutions provided by people who are both dreamers and pragmatists. The challenge is to simultaneously gain proficiency in one’s own field of study while remaining open to other disciplines and “different” colleagues.
Connecting with other cultures
Coming to the United States as a Fulbright scholar felt as if I were embarking on a global voyage. At intercultural events students often represented their own cultures by wearing traditional costumes. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if students – instead of wearing their own clothes – were to wear their colleagues’ costumes and represent cultures other than their own. While changing one’s appearance by wearing different clothes doesn’t make one discover another culture, it might create an initial bond and could be a way to access it.
I once went through such an experience. Back in Bucharest, at a similar intercultural event, the Indonesian students could not make it at the last moment. I was given less than a day to “rescue the Indonesian stand.”
After a quick lesson in Indonesian culture from the embassy, and their very kind offer to loan me a dress to wear, I represented Indonesia, wearing the customary beautiful red dress and carrying an ornamental fan. It was a unique experience and it brought me closer to Indonesian culture, which will never again seem foreign to me. Through this experience, I became a friend of the Indonesian Embassy in Romania, and they often invited me to their events where I further explored their culture.
Adapting to a diversity of cultures is an essential skill in modern times. Regardless of our workplace, we will most probably collaborate with people from various cultures. Finding creative ways to put ourselves in “other people’s shoes” can help us better understand their identities and appreciate what we all share underneath our “cultural clothes.”
Connecting mind and body
As a child I was not exposed much to sports. The education system in Romania – as in many other countries – is mainly focused on intellectual development and less on sports or artistic expression. In the United States, I was pleasantly surprised to see all the athletic facilities that a campus has: from swimming pools to tennis courts, and facilities for football and other sports. The culture of athletics on American campuses led me to pursue more athletic and outdoor activities, and even to start ballet last year.
Though a complete novice, I have been as serious as I could be – constantly training, following a healthy diet and getting enough sleep. (Please don’t ask how few parties I get to attend.)
The results have exceeded my expectations. The discipline I got from sports taught me to focus on the present and to continue even when I am clumsy (and trust me, I have a lot of these moments). I am looking forward to results in the long term while enjoying the beauty of the process. I have learned the truth of the Latin motto mens sana in corpore sano (healthy mind, in a healthy body).
This principle is easily forgotten in a digitalized world, when sitting in front of computers for hours has become the norm. Unless we want to use our body mostly as a tool to transport the brain around (and not forget the fingers that stick on the computer keyboard), then academics and sports should not be opposed, but synergistic and should make our work more productive and our lives healthier.
As I look back on all my experiences in Romania and the U.S., the key concept is linking: cultures, disciplines, perspectives – every “link” enriches my academic path, enlarges my perspective on life and better prepare me for future challenges .
Experiencing a wide range of physical and artistic activities, disciplines and cultures can help students become not only expert in their fields, but also informed by other disciplines. They can proudly represent their own cultures (academic or otherwise), while having empathy for others. It takes an inquiring mind and a passion for exploration to achieve academically and develop personally.