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Study Abroad Experience Provides Invaluable Insights

Students in Professor Micheline Van Riemsdijk’s Age of Migration study abroad course. From left to right are Darcy Ayers, William Oaks, Ian Constantinos, Steven Guerrera, Micheline Van Riemsdijk, and Alex Webb.

Students in Professor Micheline Van Riemsdijk’s Age of Migration study abroad course. From left to right are Darcy Ayers, William Oaks, Ian Constantinos, Steven Guerrera, Micheline Van Riemsdijk, and Alex Webb.

From June 8 to July 2, 2017, Alex Webb, a sophomore geography major, traveled with four other students and Professor Micheline Van Reimsdijk to Oslo, Norway, and London for the Age of Migration course, which highlighted migration history and policies around the world and included extensive training in the use of qualitative research.

During the course, Webb focused her research on the following question: How are migrants affected by discrimination in Norway? She developed several new skills, including using qualitative methods, asking questions that provided her the answers needed for her research, and how to analyze the findings from her interviews. She thoroughly enjoyed the entire research process.

“Professor Van Reimsdijk was such an excellent teacher and mentor throughout the whole process,” Webb says. “I cannot imagine receiving better instruction in this field of study.”

One of the most interesting things she learned through the research process was that in Europe, there is no vocabulary to speak about race and discrimination. One of the people she interviewed said they do not have a societally accepted terminology of racial concepts.

“My interviewee said ‘The dominant idea is that there are no races, there is only one human race, and saying anything to the contrary can be interpreted as racist in and of itself,’” Webb says. “Because race is a word that refers to this non-existent hierarchy based on the skin color of a person, race itself does not exist as a biological marker.”

In America, however, race is talked about so much that it is hard to put this into practice. In Norway, it is the complete opposite; the absence of the use of race and racism hinders action against discrimination. This encouraged Webb to focus future projects on the idea of whether the approach of ‘not seeing race’ is better than the approach of discussing it extensively. Both ways have visible issues, so what is the correct way? She explores this idea in her blog.

In addition to her research, Webb also had the opportunity to apply her new qualitative research skills in her interactions with Norwegians.

“Qualitative methods, such as participant observation, helped me to analyze my train conversations more in depth,” Webb says. “They helped me to gain insight to the reasons behind why a person acts and the way Norwegians use language. If I had not learned about specific kinds of observations and how to analyze information, I would not have been able to ask questions and probe so intentionally during my discussions.”

Webb also learned about the differences and significance between the definition of refugees compared to the definition of migrants. She gained a better understanding of the refugee process by meeting people that work with refugees and migrants every day at places such as health clinics in Norway and the Migration Museum. She also attended a panel discussion of refugees in London.

“It was through all three of these learning opportunities that I was able to best understand what we were studying inside the classroom would have been impossible to grasp without the study abroad trip,” Webb says. “Another important aspect of the study abroad experience was that I was able to interact, form relationships with, and learn from people from several different cultures I had not encountered before. This is invaluable for any person, but especially for a human geography major. This study abroad experience was a great opportunity. I was able to expand my geographic skill set and put it into practice in the field, which is so valuable and very unique to study abroad programs.”