Cutting Across Cultures for Learning

"I was thrilled that I got a typical Indian vegetarian meal of moong-rice-rajma-lassi as a celebratory last meal at the end of my semester!"

"Four months down, I can't believe my English is this good!"

It has been a rollercoaster of a year for Ahmedabad University's Dharmin Lungariya and Rennes School of Business' Mathis Mauduit. In the penultimate year of their four-year management study programmes, Dharmin and Mathis took the opportunity to spend an entire semester at each other's universities. Dharmin pursuing BBA (Hons) in Finance and Accounting at the Amrut Mody School of Management, was in Rennes, the capital of Brittany, France, between January and April, while Mathis is nearing the end of his semester, which started in July, in the heritage city of Ahmedabad in Gujarat, India.

The students chose these particular countries to explore a culture vastly different from their own. Additionally, Dharmin emphasises that he was looking for a multidisciplinary learning experience, like the one offered at Ahmedabad. "At Ahmedabad University, we have several interdisciplinary courses. We have students from engineering and humanities, for instance, taking the same courses as us, management students. When I opted for Rennes, I knew I would be exposed only to business students. The multidisciplinarity came from global students who were part of the exchange programme. I was studying with students with a background in international law and politics, and it was refreshing to study with them. Also, Rennes offered me a perspective of business in the European region, and the business dynamics and consumer behaviour are vastly different from those in India. So I knew that studying at Rennes would pack in a great learning experience," he says. Mathis was looking forward to studying in Asia. "For me, the social experience mattered greatly. I hadn't ever travelled to India, and I wanted to explore this vital region of the world," he says.

The students aver that the learning environment and infrastructure these Universities offer are quite similar. "Faculty in both the Universities make their sessions highly interactive, though sessions are longer at Rennes. Also, the academic sessions start a little later in the day at Rennes, while my day at Ahmedabad would start at eight in the morning!" Mathis says. "Sessions at Ahmedabad have a lot more diversity, with management students allowed to take electives in sustainability and technology as well. Strangely, my day wasn't as relaxed as Mathis'; I was the only one whose sessions would begin at six every morning without fail," he adds grudgingly.

Settling into a different country was not easy for these exchange students. Mathis recounts his first few days of handling multiple languages in Ahmedabad. "Hindi, Gujarati – sometimes even the faculty would slip into these languages during classes while I was on a tough turf with English itself," says Mathis. Dharmin, who faced his fair share of language troubles, says that since he arrived in Paris, there was no pick-up arranged, and he had to rely on rudimentary French knowledge and Google translation to make his way through. "Well, language is a barrier you learn to work around," he says, "but food? That was my sore point. Bananas and Nutella sandwiches kept me alive." As a complete vegetarian, Dharmin knew he would face meal issues. Mathis had the reverse problem, and both have a hearty laugh about their culinary adventures or lack thereof. "I knew that people in Ahmedabad predominantly have a vegetarian palate. I had to live on bananas for the longest time."

Despite these seemingly complex barriers, the students have had a great time travelling in the region. Mathis explored the Maldives near India and plans to visit Agra and Jaipur when his parents visit this month, while Dharmin took a few days, after wrapping up his semester, to visit Spain and Portugal. "I have also explored a little of Ahmedabad - taken a rickshaw ride and eaten panipuri! That's ambitious, my friends say," adds Mathis.

The biggest takeaway for both is the ability to adapt. "It's almost unbelievable that I can handle myself independently; I hadn't travelled and lived independently before going to Rennes. The first few days were the most difficult, and it got better then. I can cook and do the dishes and clothes. You can place me anywhere in the world now. As a business and management student, that is extremely important," says Dharmin. For Mathis, too, adapting to the culture took time, but he has gotten used to having things 'managed' for him. "When I return to Rennes, I will cook for myself and handle the dishes and laundry while here I have everything at hand. I wonder how long it will take to get used to that life again!"