Archive for November, 2008

Organic vs. planned “cultural experiences”

Hey guys! My name is Andy, and I’m a member of the Gulliver team. My contributions to the Gulliver blog are mainly going to be about my own experiences studying and working abroad, and my thoughts on current issues in international education. I graduated from Stanford in June, 2008. During my junior year I had some of the best months of my life studying abroad in Florence, Italy with New York University. And just after graduating from Stanford, I spent two months working/volunteering on a small island just off the north coast of Papua New Guinea – quite a different and absolutely amazing experience.

Anyway, the other day I came across this article that I think is worth discussing. The basic gist is that study abroad, along with community service and internships, concretely increases one’s learning capacity and even maturity. Specifically, the article praises programs that stress immersion into a different culture.

The part of the article I loved was its point about students rethinking assumptions and maturing as learners. The Director of the Rome program office at the University of Dallas’ statement that “You can look around campus and tell who’s been to Rome just by the maturity with which they carry themselves,” definitely touches on something significant. After coming back from abroad, I definitely felt a swagger. And it seems like most people who return from abroad come back with a certain swagger. While the whole rethinking assumptions and maturing as learners things seems like a clichéd talking point, the truth is that it’s hard to live in a foreign, unfamiliar place for an extended period of time and not start to rethink assumptions.

There was, however, one issue mentioned in the article with which I disagree. To say that certain study-abroad programs stand out from the pack because of their required immersion rules is misleading for a couple of reasons.

First, a student who is motivated to immerse him/herself into a different culture will self-select into these programs, or if he/she goes on a program that does not require such immersion, will immerse him/herself into the culture anyway. In other words, it’s the students who make the effort that “stand out from the pack,” not the programs those students go on.

Second, I would be wary of a general rule along the lines of “the more required ‘cultural experiences,’ the better.” For one thing, many of these “immersive” experiences can be tacky, forced, and no more “authentic” than a trip to Disney world. For example, I remember one of the few planned immersion experiences at NYU was a trip to a local university to meet students. We entered the courtyard as a large class, and while we all tried to talk to people, our interactions felt a bit forced and contrived.

In addition, one of the amazing things about being abroad is the freedom – it is really the first time in many students’ lives where they can feel great freedom and self-efficacy. Indeed, while many leave home to go away to college, being away in not only a different city, but a different country with different people, different laws, and a different history really gets that independence feeling going. Programs that define and manage too carefully the scope and form of their students’ cultural experiences can inhibit this freedom and the growth and learning that comes with it. Immersing oneself in another culture is an amazing thing to do, but I feel that it only holds true meaning if it is done naturally, at one’s own pace and directive.

I think that the overall point to take away from this is that study abroad gives you experience, and that is really the key to rethinking our assumptions and becoming mature learners. We all have biases, opinions, and expectations, and it is rare those biases, opinions, and expectations ever really change solely through reading, conversation, or video. The reality is true changes occur only through experience (by the way this is a tenet of Zen), and whether you want to conceive of it like this or not, going abroad is forcing yourself to experience something significantly different. So be prepared for that swagger.

Gulliver blog mission statement

Hey guys!  Today I just want to briefly comment on the purpose of this blog.  The Gulliver team has given a lot of thought to how we’d like to use this.  We’re pretty sure all of these ideas are going to have completely changed before long, but for now, here is what you can expect on the Gulliver blog:


  1. Featured posts by Study Abroad students and other young travelers.  Want to get the inside scoop on going abroad from a variety of different people and perspectives?  You are in the right place.
  2. Current issues in Study Abroad.  For the other Study Abroad geeks out there.  Are you planning to stay up all night reading the new Open Doors report?  Is your magazine rack full of worn copies of Glimpse, Abroad View, Transitions Abroad, and International Educator?  You, too, are in the right place.
  3. Gulliver updates, news, and behind-the-scenes peaks.  Transparency is our M.O. here at Gulliver, and it’s a philosophy we bring both to the Gulliver website, and to the company itself.  As we continue to grow, build, and develop, you’ll hear all about our adventures here. 


We love a big conversation: lots of people, lots of points of view.  Getting different perspectives and meeti500soapbox-pic1ng completely different people is one of the most amazing parts of going abroad – we want to imitate that experience here.  So this blog is going to have a number of regular contributors, and then tons and tons of special guests.  Think of it as the communal Study Abroad soapbox. 

But in addition to our regular writers and special guests, the most important contributors to this blog are you guys.  We. Want. Comments!  Like Gulliver itself, we want our blog to connect people and start new conversations that never would have happened otherwise.  So let us know what you think, and we promise to respond.

To start off with a bang, we’re going to post a few items in quick succession, each by a different writer and on a different topic.  Then we’ll probably slow down a bit and get back to doing real work.  Happy reading!

Welcome to Gulliver!

gulliver_halo3Welcome to Gulliver!  We’re incredibly excited that Gulliver is now up and running and helping students Study Abroad, and we figured it was about time that we started a blog for the site.  I’m James, the founder of Gulliver, and in this first post, I’m going to explain what Gulliver does, and why.

(By the way, you can go here if you’d like to learn more about Gulliver’s mission, team, or history.)

What is Gulliver?

Gulliver is a brand new website for students interested in Studying Abroad.  Our mission is to help students do three things:

  1. pick the perfect Study Abroad program
  2. get ready to go abroad (and not forget anything!)
  3. meet other Study Abroad students, travelers, and locals around the world

Gulliver was born out of the team’s own experiences and those of our friends.  In 2005-06 I spent an amazing year living in Lyon, France, and teaching English through CIEP’s “assistant de langue” program.  It was a life-changing experience.   I became fluent in French.  I came to know and understand deeply a new city and culture – one that will for the rest of my life be a second home.  I made a dozen new friends, both French and American.  And I had more fun than I’d ever had before in my life.  

Shortly after coming back to the U.S., I realized that I wanted to help more people have the same awesome experience that I did.  So I decided to figure out what was keeping students from going abroad, and how I could help.

The problems we want to solve

I started out by thinking about what problems I had during my year in Lyon.  Just because my year was great doesn’t mean it was easy!   There were lots of issues along the way, but the big ones all seemed to be logistical.  I had a really tough time trying to figure out the answers to questions like:

  • “How do I find a place to live?”
  • “Can I get a second job?”
  • “What do I do about health insurance?”  
  • “Which is the best bank for me?”
  • “Do I get a pre-paid or a post-paid cell phone?”

My college and CIEP had both helped some, but there was only so much they knew.  I thought it would be great to have a website that could tell me everything I needed to do in order to get ready for my trip, and to get settled once I was there.  

Then I started asking my friends and family about their experiences.  My brother Andrew had a different problem.  He wanted to Study Abroad in Russia two summers ago.  His school didn’t have any programs there that were right for him, so he was on his own finding something.  His research took forever, and he had no idea if the options he found were legit or not.  Andrew finally found something, but he wished there were a website that had lots of information about all the programs out there, real student reviews of those programs, and an easy way to search through programs and compare them.

Then there was my friend Jeff.  Jeff spent a semester on a program in Grenada, Spain.  He had a great time, but his biggest regret was that he didn’t meet more people during his trip.  As he wrote me in an email: 

It has been incredibly difficult to meet people here.  I know there are other Americans because we see them in restaurants and bars, but there is no easy way to find them.  Likewise it is incredibly difficult to meet Spanish students.  We don’t take classes with them and the way their university system works is very different so its sort of hard to even know where to go.

Jeff wished there were a website that could help him meet real Spaniards, other travelers, and people on different programs.  

These are just a couple examples – over and over again friends and the students that the team and I interviewed came back to the same three issues: they wanted an easier way to pick a Study Abroad program, plan their trips, and meet other people before and during their time abroad.  So, we decided to build exactly that.

Our solution (version 1.0)

11 months later (and 2 weeks ago), Gulliver opened the doors, starting its public beta.  Here’s what we’ve got for you:

Picking a program: 

  • extensive profiles for almost 900 Study Abroad programs in over 60 countries
  • a search interface that lets you find programs by country, language, subjects, price, season, and student rating
  • a “comparison matrix” that lets you easily compare programs side by side
  • search result tailored to your school – enter your school’s name and we’ll show you the programs that your school has pre-approved for academic credit transfer
  • a personal basket so you can save programs you’re interested in to review later
  • discussions forums and programs reviews that give you the real, unfiltered opinions of other students

Planning your trip:

  • Gulliver Trip Planner – comprehensive, country-specific To Do lists that tell you everything you need to do to go abroad, and how to do it.  Imagine Lonely Planet specifically for Study Abroad. We already cover the Top 10 Study Abroad destinations, and add a new country almost every week.
  • Interactive tools – you can set the status of each item in your Trip Planner to make sure you’re on top of everything.
  • More discussion forums to ask questions and get answers

Meeting people:

  • See who else is going on your program, to your destination, and from your school
  • Add, find, make, and invite friends
  • Send private messages

We think Gulliver should be pretty darn useful already, and we’re incredibly excited about several additional, top-secret features that we’ll be launching shortly.  We’re also excited that we’re already working behind-the-scenes with a bunch of your schools to tailor the site for you – stay tuned for more on that soon!

the blog of

Gulliver helps students Study Abroad. Our blog covers: current issues in Study Abroad; featured posts by Study Abroad students; and Gulliver updates, news, and behind-the-scenes peaks. Thanks for reading!