Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
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Anthropology

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Study Abroad Update:“Open Living” as a Transformative Experience

Posted on December 3, 2012

Kristin Riddell '13 found her study abroad experience in Samoa "the epitome of what study abroad should be." As an Anthropology major Kristin was happy to learn much from her homestays, field trips and “excursions” to Fiji and American Samoa. According to Riddell, the "two months worth of classroom learning provided a background for the things we encountered in everyday interactions."

Open House, Open Heart (Kristin Riddell reflects on her SIT semester in Samoa).

The culture of the Pacific is unlike any I have experinced before in my life, and I consider myself well travelled having been to multiple European countries, as well as the Caribbean.  The thing I found hardest to get used to stems from one of the most striking features of Samoan culture in comparison to European/ North American  cultures.  Many of the houses, especially the more traditional ones, have no walls.  Open fales (houses) are the building of choice for families in the villages of Samoa. As a very communally-based culture, everyone was considered family and adults often kept track of and disciplined all the kids in the village, not just their own.  It is also impossible to keep secrets from the rest of the village so privacy is not a concern.  Given the extremely humid climate, the best design for a house is one in which any breeze can make its way through without obstruction. Thus the houses are essentially a floor, short wall or fence along the edge, columns and a roof.  In case of rain, there are usually tarps rolled up below the edge of the roof or panels woven from palm fronds to keep the water out.  In comparison to the large, multiple-roomed houses with blinds to keep out nosy neighbors that are so common in the US, Samoan fales are very simple.

However, aside from being one of the first things I noticed on arrival in Samoa, the fale design also reflects some of the core values of Samoan life that dictate how people interact with each other.  Friendliness, respect, and generosity are guiding principles of Samoan behavior.  People trust each other and will invite strangers to share a meal because of the belief that by helping others whenever they can, people will receive help in times of hardship.  Those of us on the SIT program discovered this first hand during our “drop-offs”.  Our academic director would give us the name of a bus to take and tell us to be back at USP in a couple hours to discuss what we did and the interactions we had with Samoans.  This was one of the most frightening experiences of my life, but I survived and even encountered some great people who shared their snacks with me and helped me find a bus back to town.  In America, we would be suspicious if a stranger were to offer us food or invite us into their house, but in Samoa that is just what you do.  The experience of being amongst people whose culture dictated that they should care for each other was life changing.  This is a great example of how the knowledge I gained with SIT went way beyond simply academics. I would not trade my time in Samoa for anything.

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