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Early in my time in Kenya, I found myself working with some students who claimed that they had entered their study abroad program “with an open mind,” and that they did not really have expectations, hopes, or fears for the experience-to-come.

It struck me as unlikely that this could be the case.

I figured the greater likelihood was that these students felt there was some kind of “right answer” to this query about hopes, expectations, fears, etc., – an answer that they did not have their finger on just then. Their response, to deny having hopes, expectations, fears, was a means to avoid the issue.

After not too long, a way of replying to this idea came to me. I shifted the focus of my question away from asking what expectations, hopes, or fears students had, but instead to ask if they had come to Africa with an “open mind.”

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In as much as having an open mind is something of a Western cultural mantra, no student wanted to say they were anything other than open-minded.

I then followed up with the question, “Is an open mind the same thing as an empty mind?”

What I was after was to have my students check in with themselves, to be reflective about what they wanted from the program they’d joined. I wanted them to acknowledge that they had some ideas, some notions, feelings, thoughts about East or Southern Africa that excited them; that they had some ideas that engaged them, some that may have frightened them, some that might have confused them.

I wanted to uncover, somehow, a place from which the students could provide themselves with context for their experiences, to provide them with some place from which to measure change in their perceptions – of the place, of themselves, of where they had come from.

For the past year with Winterline Global Education, we have been focusing on gap year programming that builds on the same approach to open-mindedness. In this environment, asking such a focused question frees up space for students to reflect upon, and find means to express, what is on their mind as they start their Global Skills Program or Gap Semester program. It serves as scaffolding to bridge past and future ways of thinking.

So, to incoming Winterline students, a simple question: “What’s on your open mind?”

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