A few weeks ago, I welcomed our newest group of graduate students to their program. As in the past, to help everyone get to know each other, I facilitated various exercises, one of which is called Four Corners (or this year Cuatro Esquinas since the group will spend their fall term in Spain). The exercise consists of a series of questions, with participants physically moving to a space in the room that for each, correlates to the number of their preferred response. The exercise is also known as Forced Choices since the participants are given only four options to choose from . . . at first. Often, after a round or two of play, students realize that the “rules of the game” are fungible and, inspired to share different answers to those suggested, they create new spaces by choosing to stand in between two corners or even in the center of the room.
In the past, one of the questions posed was “What is your favorite place?”. This year, on the suggestion of a colleague, I reframed the question to read “Where are you a local?” The idea was to provide a space in which students could think about a place (or several) that resonated in some way for them. For some, it was a place where they have family, and for others, it was a place that they passed through that felt like a home, however they understood the term. The space may have been given to them, it may have been discovered, or it may have been created by the student in some way.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of home recently, as coincidentally, over the past two months I’ve had the chance to visit several places that have been home to me. In August, I spent time in Brattleboro, Vermont, home base to my employer of 28 years and my home community for 14 years. It’s the kind of place where you have to be OK with seeing people you know at every turn, because that’s what happens. The food co-op, the yoga class, the laundromat, date night out, even your counselor’s waiting room, you will ALWAYS run into someone you know! Our physical home in Brattleboro was a 100+ year-old cape attached to a barn that had been renovated into a second living space 80 years earlier. It was somewhat run-down, you could see outside through the walls, the floor sloped significantly, many bugs and bats also called it home. AND it fronted 100+ acres of Vermont meadows and woods with deer, gophers, foxes, porcupines, turtles, owls, turkeys, bear, and once, even a moose. Neighbors stopped by unannounced, and the barn was often full of dinners with friends and colleagues (usually the same), welcome parties for students, and visits from family. Based on the people, the building, and the setting, my sense of nostalgia for the community that was my home for 14 years rises to the surface with each visit since I moved away in 2019.
Two weeks later, I drove by the house that was my family’s home for 57 years. I was born in that neighborhood and returned there after every trip from my high-school exchange experience, then my junior year abroad, graduate school, a year of international work, and eventually from other homes with my husband by my side. I knew every smell, every squeak, every inch of space. The memories were again vivid, i.e., cracking my head open on a table when I was six, sitting on the stairs and talking with Mom as a teen, hosting exchange students through high school, arguing with sisters, returning home with joy after a trip as a young adult. In her final years, I sat with Mom on the front porch for hours, sharing stories about work and children, talking with neighbors, and listening to her stories about her friends and caregivers. Mom passed away 10 years ago, and it had been several years since I had driven by the house. It has since been renovated but when I drove up the street, the feeling of familiarity, of nostalgia, of being home, was again a visceral one.
This is not the first time I’ve questioned the meaning of the term “home” as my doctoral dissertation also explored the concept. The first half of the title was even “No Place Like Home!” After years of studying about other places and cultures, I used my doctoral work to shift perspective and consider my roots, examining how a group of Jewish tailors established their new home community as part of the New Deal planned communities movement. I was interested in the town of Jersey Homesteads (now Roosevelt, New Jersey) because my grandparents were original settlers in the town after having left their own original homes in Eastern Europe years before. My parents met there and so, my very existence is rooted there.
Today I am writing at my kitchen table, appreciative of the place I now call home. Work emails pop up, the locusts sing loudly, the cat checks on me, neighbors take a break from their gardening to say hello, students text questions, and yes, husband snores gently on the sofa in the room next door. (☺) Home today is a blurred liminal space where work can happen in any room because I work from home, such a luxury and privilege for me. It is only four years that we are in this space and community, but with family nearby, friends old and new close enough for last-minute visits, dear colleagues only a Webex call away, shelves of books on intercultural communication and IE programs nearby in my office, and a few post-pandemic shutdown gatherings now behind us, it is feeling more like home too.
With all of this swirling in my mind, I planned for orientation, reflecting on my experiences of having a singular home base that I returned to for the first 52 years of my life along with the blessing of since calling many other places home too, some for weeks and others for years. I was reminded of dear friends who last month moved to Guatemala to start their next posting as a Foreign Service family. They are experts in making any new place feel like home; they’ve done it about eight times over the past 30 years. I was also cognizant of the fact that every day I read about the war in Ukraine and am reminded of how my close friend and colleague has no choice but to see her birth home of birth violently destroyed piece by piece for no reason that makes any sense. She has had to help her immediate family re-envision where they call home. It is cruel when it’s not by choice.
What makes a home? Some are given to us, perhaps a childhood home that is a space of comfort and security or even one that is filled with angst and challenge. Some are discovered, like the homes that are opened to exploring exchange students by gracious host families. Some are forced upon us, like those of refugees who have no agency over where they call home. Some take so much effort to build, whether physically or emotionally, and rarely are two identical. The way they look, the physical feels, the ingrained smells, any sense of safety and belonging they might offer, and mostly, the memories, cannot be duplicated. Home is such a malleable and value-laden concept, and yet, whatever they are, they offer formative experiences in our personal development and thus, value as a point of reflection. So here I am, once again, asking students to consider their previous homes while inviting them to be open to the idea of creating a new one, even if only for three months.
As we introduced ourselves in orientation, I thought about the questions I was asking my new students: Where do you come from? Where is home for you? Where are you a local? And why is that? I was conscious of the fact that I am privileged to have always enjoyed home-security. And I am aware that as I ask questions that are intended to invite students’ reflections about their identities, I need to consider how asking such questions may be inviting for some people but triggering for others, as over the years, I’ve had students who did not have the luxury of calling someplace home for very long, or for whom home was a car or a shelter or even a sofa. I appreciate the stories of students who are comfortable sharing, and always hold space for those who choose to not disclose such personal information or who want to share a different conception of home. I hope that my asking students about their homes, about where they call local, provides spaces for both introspection about their paths to date, and especially, for creative and open thinking about where they might call local in the future, about homes within their power to create. Hopefully they will be encouraged to consider how they can make their study abroad locations feel like home in the months to come.
How do you conceptualize home? How has your understanding of home contributed to who you are, even how you are, as an international educator? Do you ask your participants to think about their homes and how they may create new ones for themselves while sojourning abroad? I’d love to hear your thinking about this and invite you to share your stories, ideas, and practices. I also invite you to ask any questions about anything related to the practice of International Education in GlobalEd’s new feature, “Ask Sora.” I’ll do my best to share thoughts and resources, and expect that some of your questions will also seed future columns. And if you prefer, you are always invited to contact me directly with ideas, questions, or thoughts at Sora.Friedman@sit.edu so that together, we can continue our practice.