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Class explores shared cultural experiences of a generation

  • Reflecting over pizza
    Reflecting over pizza  Sociology Professor Gul Ozyegin (second from right) created the new course. Here, she enjoys a pizza dinner with members of the class at the end of the semester.  Photo by Erin Zagursky
  • Sharing experiences
    Sharing experiences  Ally Hiponia '14, Sujin Hong '12 and Ben Raliski '15 formed one of the discussion groups in the class.  Photo by Erin Zagursky
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Disney princesses, technology, 9/11: They are all shared experiences connecting the "millennial" generation, students roughly between the ages of 18 and 28, in distinctive ways throughout the world.

During the spring semester, a comparative sociology class at William & Mary examined those differences – and similarities – by pairing American students with their international counterparts to discuss the shared cultural experiences of their generation.

“It’s been really interesting to learn about other cultures with no judgment involved, just learning and just understanding,” said Bailey Rose ’13.

Students in the comparative sociology class were partnered with international students in a new “Global Generational Consciousness” course, which was organized by Sociology Professor Gul Ozyegin. The new class sought to create “an in-depth and sustained dialogue on challenges and possibilities of global generational consciousness,” according to the class description.

The groups of students – each consisting of two American students and one international student -- were tasked with meeting several times a week to discuss their personal experiences in relation to pop culture and international events.

Different and Similar

Rose, an English major, and one of her classmates partnered with a student from China. The group discussed everything from relationships to technology. They watched two movies – “The Princess and the Frog” and “Curse of the Golden Flower” – and discussed their observations based on their cultural and personal experiences. For instance, Rose said she was surprised by “how orderly” the culture seemed in “Curse of the Golden Flower” whereas her partner from China considered that normal.

“To see how we could all watch a movie and then see different things from it, it just really opened your eyes,” said Rose.

Elizabeth Atkins ’13, a sociology major and Arabic minor who is also in the ROTC program, spent last summer in Jordan and lived in Germany when she was younger. She partnered with a student from South Korea and recalled discussing celebrities with him, asking him if he judged America based on the country’s celebrities. He told her that  don’t pay much attention to Hollywood because they have celebrities of their own, Atkins said.

But one of the biggest things that surprised Atkins in her conversations with him was how South Koreans viewed Sept. 11, 2001.

“One of the things that stood out to me was that 9/11 wasn’t as important there as it was here,” she said, adding that it is often the focal point of America’s international relations.

“The thing that made it an event for them was the economics that happened afterwards,” she said. “It affected their economy because it affected the global economy. Now, they are kind of in a recession like we are.”

Although the groups discovered many interesting differences between cultures in their conversations, they also found similarities.

“I felt like we had a lot more similarities than you would think going into it, and that’s been really eye-opening,” said Ben Raliski ’15, who partnered with a student from South Korea.

For instance, cultures around the world all are dealing with the impact of new technologies and the Internet.

“There’s this new international identity that’s been forming recently with globalization and technology linking the world together,” Raliski said. “Coming from very different backgrounds, we can relate easily to international issues.”

A Chance to be Heard

"K" Lee ’14, an international student from South Korea who also spent time in Canada, said she signed up for the class because “I thought this would be a really interesting way to express myself,” she said.

Lee said she learned two important lessons from the experience.

“First, I figured out that I am different, but secondly it’s not a bad thing,” she said. “It’s actually another chance that I can stand out. My story’s actually interesting. People actually pay attention to it. I can use that to my advantage, as a conversation starter or something.”

Lee also gained something else from the class: two new friends.

“Seeing people who actually accept different ideas and different views, seeing them and knowing them is a big plus for me,” said Lee.

Morris Chen ’14, a women’s studies major and international student from Taiwan, was motivated to participate in the class by Ozyegin, who is his advisor.

“She really wanted me to be in the program,” he said. “I wanted to be in it, too, because I thought it would be a really interesting conversation opportunity.”

Along with discussing serious matters like cultural representations in the media, gay rights in various countries and relations between China and Taiwan, Chen and his partners discussed lighter topics.

“We talked about Disney movies and Disney princesses a lot,” he said. “We were talking about a product of Western culture that has influenced you. Disney is definitely something that has gone global and has affected a lot of little boys’ and girls’ lives. We talked about Disney princesses and how they are very convenient bonding tools and conversation starters. Sometimes you can even tell someone’s characteristics by who their favorite princess characters are.”

Chen said he enjoyed learning about and discussing the concept of global generational consciousness through the experience.

“There are things, like media or technology, that are global and impact all of our lives – but the way that we experience these impacts is different,” he said. “So we have a shared experience that is also a different experience.”

New Perspective

As the class progressed throughout the semester, Rose said that she gained a new viewpoint.

“We stopped thinking about things from the American perspective and started seeing them from that culture’s perspective,” said Rose. “That was a nice, eye-opening thing.”

Although Atkins has had experience in the Middle East and Europe, she said she enjoyed getting a new perspective on Asia.  She noted that the class forced her to “have those deep conversations that oftentimes you don’t get just being friends.”

“I would never have gotten to know my international partner had this class not forced me to, and it’s been a great experience,” she said.