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Through thick and thin, TAPIF alumna studies how time abroad shapes personal identities

Erinn Kehoe’s Columbia University Masters thesis explores how a year with the Teaching Assistant Program in France (TAPIF) impacts the way Americans think about themselves, the world, and their place in it. We asked Erinn to shed light on these findings and to share her advice for future teaching assistants.

For more information on the Teaching Assistant Program in France, visit the TAPIF website. Applications for 2019-2020 open October 15th, 2018. 

What initially interested you in the topic of identity formation in exchange programs like the Assistant de langue program?

I was drawn to the topic of identity formation after my own experiences as an assistante de langue and, earlier, as a study abroad student in Spain and southern France. I found that my time abroad through each of these experiences resulted in a significant change in my perspective and thoughts about my place within my community, country, and the world. I was interested to learn how others’ time overseas might have impacted them in similar (or different) ways. After doing some preliminary reading I found that there had not been much research done regarding the effect of teaching programs abroad on participants and decided to focus on the experiences of returned TAPIF assistant(e)s from the States.

What were your main findings?  

I found that TAPIF participants’ attempts to reconcile their sense of identity as “American” with global perceptions of what it means to bear that label formed an important part of their experience abroad. Respondents tended to fall along a spectrum from holding a defensive (or “thick”) national identity to one that is dissociative (or “thin”). Many respondents stated that they were called on to explain American political decisions and felt they were sometimes conflated with negative stereotypes of Americans while in France, experiences that they felt simplified and flattened their individual identities and values. These negative interactions tended to serve as an impetus for sociocultural identity development for participants.

Some assistants, those with a “thick” national identity, responded by becoming defensive of their American identity. This defensiveness could be positive: for instance, assistants sometimes tried to serve as a good example of what an American could be in order to disprove negative stereotypes. It could also be negative; some assistants felt frustrated that their American identity was being challenged and tended to lash out at those who confronted them in an effort to stand up for that identity. In either case, these participants with a “thick” national identity tended to retain a firm connection to their Americanness throughout their experiences and were, as a result, relatively more closed off from incorporating other perspectives or identities.

On the other end of the spectrum, assistants who demonstrated a “thin” national identity often responded to stressful situations by seeking to distance themselves from their Americanness. This group frequently did not seem to feel a significant connection to their American identity, or to value it; they often expressed in their responses that they did not want to be seen as American at all.

However, many assistants fell somewhere in the middle of this thick-to-thin spectrum. For this last group, their time spent abroad led them to deeply reflect on their American identity, perhaps for the first time in their lives. In addition, these respondents tended to feel a strong connection to both their American and French identities. This group described themselves as more open and flexible following their experiences in France than they had before their time in the TAPIF program. They often stated that they continued to incorporate elements of French culture into their lives; this was true even for those who had completed the program several years prior.

What surprised you about these findings and what matched your predictions?

I wasn’t surprised that the TAPIF experience would have a significant impact on the identity of participants – this definitely reflected my own experiences! What did surprise me was the complexity of this impact. It varied from person to person and sometimes even within the same person’s responses to my questions. The finding that participants may become either more closed off – whether by being strongly attached to their American identity or strongly opposed to it – or, alternatively, may become more open was very powerful. It told me that the TAPIF experience is a life-changing one, but also one whose impact is far from straightforward.

What methodology did you use and why? 

I employed a case study approach for this research. The primary reason that I employed this methodology is that it permitted me to gather in-depth information on the experiences of TAPIF alumni in their own words and to analyze my results within the very specific context of the TAPIF program.

In order to gather my initial data I sent out a survey to the Facebook and LinkedIn TAPIF alumni groups, from which I received 193 viable responses. These responses were coded in a preliminary analysis to determine themes and areas for further inquiry. I also followed up with select individual respondents by email/phone to gather additional information about their responses. My further analysis focused on common structures that appeared across participants’ experiences, as well as significant differences.

How has your experience in France as an Assistante de langue impacted your own identity, and your own personal and professional path?

Much like the participants of my research, I found that my experiences abroad completely changed my own view of myself and my place in the world. I had studied abroad for an academic year prior to TAPIF so I already had experience living abroad, but the experience of explicitly acting as a representative of my language, culture, and country in the classroom impacted me in a really powerful way. Although I participated in the program seven years ago I still feel that I would not be as open-minded or culturally flexible as I am today without my time as an assistante. I still seek to incorporate French culture into my life whenever I can and I retain a strong connection to Bretagne, the region in which I worked, to this day. My time in the program impacted my professional path as well. I now work in higher education abroad and I feel uniquely qualified to help prepare outgoing American students for their time overseas after my own experiences with living abroad and serving as an assistante.

What advice would you give to Assistants de langue as they prepare for a year in France? How would you encourage them to reflect on their own identity?

I think it’s important to reflect on what it means to be explicitly asked to represent your language, culture, and country in the classroom. While not typically intended in to be antagonistic, this can sometimes feel like a confrontation of your American identity and was not something I anticipated when I first began my work as an assistante. Expect that you will be asked to answer questions on challenging topics, including American politics, history, current events, media, and cultural norms. Give some thought to these topics before you travel and be prepared to explain your position, as well as to hear opposing views.

I think that the results of my research show that just traveling abroad, and even working overseas for an extended time, does not automatically result in growth and increased openness; these things should not be taken for granted as automatic byproducts of working as an assistant. In fact, for some of my respondents, their experiences abroad resulted in feeling more closed off from other identities and viewpoints! In retrospect, I would tell my past self (and future participants) to try to find a balance between defensiveness of your American identity and disavowal of it. Be open to other perspectives, be analytical of what you experience and how it corresponds (or doesn’t) with your current viewpoint, and consider what you can incorporate into your identity. Your experience will be the richer for it!

Erinn Kehoe was an English Language Assistant in the Académie de Rennes in 2011-2012 at the Secondary level. Erinn completed a Masters in International Educational Development from Teachers College of Columbia University and is currently the Study Abroad Coordinator at LIM College in Manhattan.

For more information on the Teaching Assistant Program in France, visit the TAPIF website.