We began by working with a student population geographically far away while organizationally close by: Stanford students studying abroad. Through a collaboration with the Bing Overseas Studies Program (BOSP) at Stanford we launched a design research project to understand and improve the experience of students studying abroad. Our hope was that this would also allow us to begin experimenting with new modes of learning for this specific user group.
During the Spring and Summer of 2015 our team partnered with staff from BOSP to conduct eleven depth interviews with students who had returned from studying abroad. We would regularly bring our two teams together to make sense of the stories we heard. Convincing colleagues with no experience in design research to use abductive reasoning and let go of their preconceived ideas of what the problem was really about was one of the most challenging and rewarding components of that work. I learned the importance of framing design research as a pursuit of inspiration, not definitive answers, to get buy-in from this group of administrators.
After synthesizing the interviews a surprising theme emerged: students would use their time abroad not only as an opportunity to immerse themselves in a new culture and language, but also to experiment with their own identity. Students described being abroad as receiving a fresh start where they were free from the expectations from their existing social circles and families and could become someone entirely different.
Among the students we interviewed a handful stood out. They were describing their time abroad as a greater personal transformation than what we heard from their peers and had to a greater extent been able to hold on to their newly acquired identities, values and habits even months after returning to campus. Common for these students was that they’d all found a way early on to independently break away from what they labeled the “Stanford bubble”. The ten weeks students spend abroad are packed with programming and activities offered by the local Stanford center. It is easy to spend a quarter abroad without actually living abroad by relying on the overwhelming offerings and support provided by the center’s staff. At one location the staff even provided students with cell-phones, public transit cards, and bank accounts upon arrival, removing the need for students to independently acquire such essential items and navigating the local systems. The students who had had the most transformative experiences abroad, however, all told stories of independently finding their place in the local community. One woman took the initiative to join an orchestra which meant spending at least a couple of hours a week in a room filled with Germans of all ages who spoke very little English. This forced her to confront her anxiety around not fitting in and being looked down on for not mastering German yet.
Based on our insights about how time abroad creates space for experimentation with identity we began developing a set of interactive non-classroom media experiences that would engage this user group while they were abroad and strengthen their confidence.