Thursday, March 15, 2012

Following in the Footsteps of Study Abroad

In my undergraduate biology course I was required to do a presentation on a human sexuality topic.  I chose to present a PowerPoint on transexualism.  I chose the topic because I did not understand how a person could not identify with their biological sex.  Honestly, I remember thinking it was strange, weird, and not normal.  My opinions and values on transsexuals have changed drastically since I first came into contact with the concept, but it was a process that included educating myself, meeting transsexual individuals, and learning the unique language of this community. 

The feelings that I experienced are similar to my experiences with different ethnic, cultural, and religious groups that I have not had much exposure to in my lifetime.  Unfortunately, many people feel more comfortable discussing cultural, ethnic, and religious differences than sexuality differences.  The lack of awareness, language, and interactions with different sexual groups makes it difficult for people to fully understand the diverse sexuality spectrum.  Colleges in the United States place a large emphasis on the importance of study abroad programs, and the rate of American students studying abroad continues to rise ( and  The purposes of these programs are to broaden the students’ experiences and allow them to expand their understanding of the world, ultimately facilitating personal growth of the student (   

The use of experiential learning  ( to educate students on culture, religion, and ethnicity would be useful to educate students about sexual minority groups.  Providing students with an opportunity to meet sexually diverse individuals is an effective way to start a much-needed conversation.  A large amount of money is invested to ensure students the opportunity to learn outside their own environment.  Individuals who belong to a sexual minority group are everywhere and have voices that would love to be heard.  As an educator, we need to provide students with an opportunity to interact with what they are learning, hear personal stories, engage in dialogue, and ask questions ( It is the educator’s role to give the students the resources they need to understand the material.  I was lucky to have experiences to interact with transsexualism, so that my narrow-minded viewpoints could be expanded to create more accurate opinions and values.  My experience in the classroom where I was able to hear the story of a transsexual and ask questions was the moment that I decided that my opinions and values were uninformed.  Let’s give this opportunity to our students.

jennifer toadvine


  1. Jennifer, this post also speaks to me on a personal level because, I also had some challenges when I came into the program. As a Catholic, I had to allow myself to abandon the teachings of the church on homosexuality. While I am heterosexual, I often questioned the homosexual orientation beliefs solely because of my religion. This was apparent also in my family's way of thinking. It was though this program that I learned to get out there and get to know others that were part of this orientation and stop being ignorant or letting myself being influenced by my religion. I got out there and did just that: ask questions. A part of me is ashamed with how I thought about homosexual individuals before, but I like to call that part of my past brainwashing! Now when I educate on this subject I am ready for questions people like old self have and can answer them from a personal experience point of view. I think with combining experiential learning, for example inviting gay or lesbian guest speakers can be helpful for those having these pre-assumptions that homosexuality is wrong. Experiential learning can truly provide an insight these individuals might not have been exposed to previously. It would be my hope that experiential learning and asking questions can better people for the long haul!

  2. Jenn
    Great comparison of study abroad culture shock to sexuality culture shock. In order to learn something you really should have a first hand experience with it. Now, I'm not saying students need to run out and try the opposite gender, but as an educator bringing in guest speakers, documentaries, and experts are a beneficial way for students to learn about the unknown. I think this program has been great with getting guest speakers to come in and talk about their sexuality topics. One memorable guest speaker was in 593 when we had people involved in pedophilia come in and speak about their experience. It made me completely uncomfortable, but extremely interested in listening because I got to ask questions I wouldn't normally ask the average person off the street. The experience opened my eyes to something new and challenged by personal opinion.

  3. I couldn't agree more! I think that knowing the "other" is a huge first step in understanding and accepting them. I always love reading stories about a homophobic person who found out they had a gay friend or relative and not only realized they were wrong but became an activist for gay rights. We don't hear about those stories often enough, but they do happen. If you can personalize a minority group, they go from being "them" to being a person or people you know.

    In 593, I think the guest speakers were very helpful in taking the "otherness" away from certain groups. I would love to see a high school (or middle or elementary school, for that matter) use the same technique. I think bringing in a gay (or trans or bi or genderqueer, etc) speaker would really help students understand that regardless of orientation people are people. Instead, teachers are told to keep their orientations to themselves and are accused of supporting a certain agenda if they teach tolerance. Everyone knows a sexual "other" in their life. But providing a safe forum to talk about this otherness is something we rarely do, but so desperately need to.

  4. Thanks for the great post, Jenn. I think you are totally right about the need for cultural as well as sexual exposure when it comes to student learning. Though I was never fortunate enough to participate in a study abroad program, I have been fortunate enough to travel on my own, and I can tell you that those experiences taught me more than I can know.

    As someone has already mentioned, certain classes within the Widener program have done a great job, between SARs and guest speakers, at exposing students to new/different sexual ideas/identities/behaviors/etc. I hope that if I am ever in a professors position, I can do the same for my students. Still, Widener represents a unique environment where this type of exposure can happen, safely. Where ever I end up being employed, I hope that I will be able to give my students the same opportunities that have been afforded to me. Realistically however, I am afraid I will not end up in an organization that will be as accommodating as Widener. If that is the case, I know that I can, and will be, an amazing resource to my students. I may not be able to give them the experiences/exposures I want, but I can give them the resources to those things so that they can get what they need!

  5. That was such a great post, Jenn! I think you highlighted a lot of really important issues. I can definitely see the correlation between our desire to study abroad and learn about other cultures, and a need to learn about sexual minority groups. There is such a gap between what we ask students to learn in school, and the reality of life outside of those four walls; and that can be said of any subject, but most notably within the realm of sexuality education.
    The link you provided to the Mountain View program is great. It's wonderful to see such innovative ideas out there, changing the landscape of sexual education. The article raises an important point. Because sexual education is typically incorporated under a larger umbrella of PE or health, there is so little time devoted to issues other than puberty and reproduction. There are so many more topics that need to be discussed and explored, at any age, but most definitely during times as developmentally important as adolescence. Providing an opportunity for students to experience and learn firsthand, from members of sexual minority populations could be an eye-opening educational experience. It's one that I hope we can see more of in the future of sex education - especially with so many passionate educators as we have now!

  6. Incorporating experiential learning is so very important in sex education, and study abroad programs can make an immense difference in an individuals's ability to comprehend and relate to "otherness."

    You made a comment about how people often feel more comfortable talking about cultural differences such as race, religion and ethnicity than sexuality related differences. I like how you parallel these items because sexuality is just as much a part of culture and is significantly influenced by culture like race, religion and ethnicity. I recently read that in order for educators to be effective incorporating multicultural teaching strategies they need to be skilled observers of culture.

    For us as sexuality educators being skilled observes of how people relate and resond to sexual differences can be very beneficial in the classroom setting. By simply being competent observers in our personal and professional life, we are equipping ourselves to better deal with diverse reactions and responses to sexual differences in the classroom.

  7. I feel like I need to play devil's advocate on this post. Don't get me wrong, Jennifer made some excellent points that could be quite useful to future students but I question the practicality of it. A previous commenter did note that we are in a unique situation at Widener in so much as we have an environment acceptable to have such opportunities like the guest speakers mentioned, but what about in the average classroom? I feel that's what we need to focus on and make it happen there. We could incorporate Tracey's post from last week and think about if it would be possible to have such an experience with those youth in her classrooms. The other hindrance in allowing youth to experience sexuality outside the heterosexual norm of society is just that-society. There have been so many rules and regulations placed on the subject of sexuality that it's stifling it to the point of barely being able to teach reproductive anatomy. It bothers me that I sound like Debbie Downer on this post but I feel like it when my own team at work is worried about handing over our youth survey to principals at high schools for their review since it contains questions related to sexual intercourse, pregnancy, and birth control methods. Those questions are only about 5% of the survey too. I understand this is a battle we have to fight our entire careers and navigating that battle is what we are being taught in the program but I would like to feel more ground is being made and that society doesn’t see sex and sexuality as a big scary monster. I need to learn to take the small victories too because someday they will add up to be big changes.

  8. Jen,

    I like the idea of giving the 'other' an identity and I agree. So often those not a part of the majority are left out. We are learning to be conscious of those not in the room right now and this is really hard when trying to manage those inside of the room, but necessary because as much we like to believe it, we don't live in a vacuum. I am wondering what an experiential lesson would look like. I think I may be extreme, but I always want to push people ( like you guys didn't know) and yes confronting a person in a lecture style or something like that, but what about throwing people way out of their comfort zones. I imagine something like field trips or some sort of acknowledgement of being other.

    In discussing culture in classes I'm not sure if it is easier. I think that's based on perspective, political climate and again on who's in the room. I think these discussions look a lot different based on who is in the room and that goes back to my first point of being aware of who is IN the room and who is NOT in the room.

    All in all,
    I'm all for making this conversation a real part of scholastic curricula.

  9. Hey Jenn!

    I think that it sounds like I am in good company in saying that I thought this was a great post. I think that what I liked about it was acknowledging that sexual minorities come with whole cultures. I also agree that in really understanding someone there must be some level of experiential learning. We learn that in our cross cultural class and I think that it is driven home with reports like this one: that show that simply knowing someone who is gay will likely affect your views on equality. While I agree with Sarah that I think that this would be hard to implement in public schools, I don’t think that it would be impossible. The reality is that many students may already now someone that is gay that they could interact with, think about, or share stories about if that made sense. I think that it is absolutely valuable in other teaching environments with fewer restrictions. I also think that when doing this kind of education it is important to be ready to do cross-cultural education too, so that students have a framework to unpack their experiences and understand them.


  10. Thanks for the disclosure, Jenn!

    Many years ago in my first year in undergrad, I had a very similar experience. Growing up, I didn't know any homosexual individuals personally. Also, I was raised Catholic, and while I no longer identify as a religious person, it was ingrained in my head that homosexuality was unnatural and wrong. In my first undergraduate psychology class, I asked my professor, "is homosexuality a mental illness?" She was quick to inform me that it is not, and it has been taken out of the DSM.

    Looking back, I'm shocked at what I used to believe, but I can also understand why. From my experience and my experience now with others, I realize that a lot of people are ignorant to sexual diversity because they lack that experiential component. It's hard to understand something or someone different from you when you haven't shared their perspective.

    Over the past several years, I've experienced a lot of this ignorance from others. I think, however, that my realization of my own prior ignorance has helped me to better educate others in similar positions. Gaining perspective through experiential learning is very important in diversity training. I encouraged my students to try to visualize themselves in the other persons shoes. One activity (we actually did this in HSED 592) I like to use is "A Guided Journey" (Liggins, Wille, Hawthorne, & Rampton, 1994). In this activity, participants imagine themselves as a heterosexual growing up in a predominantly homosexual world. Part of the activity goes like this:
    ‘Imagine you are 13 years old, growing up heterosexual in a world where everyone
    is lesbian or gay. Your schoolteacher is lesbian, your tennis coach is gay, the
    guidance counsellor at school is gay, your grandmother is a lesbian, all your sisters
    are lesbians and brothers are gay.’
    • ‘Who could you turn to? Who could you confide in to tell your secret?’
    • ‘You’ve been to the school and public library to try and get some information
    about straights. You find one book on straights but don’t dare put your name on
    the card to take the book out.’
    • ‘In the lunch break at school kids talk about ‘straights’ and how disgusting they
    are. When you are in the fifth form someone of the same sex invites you to the school
    ball. What do you do? You go, because you don’t want people to think you’re
    strange or different....'

    I've had great success with this activity. I believe it's a valuable tool because it allows learners to experience similar emotions related to the struggle that many homosexual individuals face.

    Liggins, S., Wille, A., Hawthorne, S., & Rampton, L. (1994). ‘Affirming Diversity - An Educational Resource on Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Orientation.

    1. Megan, thanks for sharing this activity. I'm always looking for activities to put into my teacher "toolbox". I have a hard time finding activities that address sexual diversity in a way that even the most uniformed individual would identify with and learn from. Thanks again. I will definitely be using this in the future.

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    Study Abroad