Chapter 8: Learning in Place: Study Tours and the Cultivation of Grounded Insight

Chapter 8

Learning in Place: Study Tours and the Cultivation of Grounded Insight

Julian CH Lee, Damian Grenfell, Robbie Guevara, Kerry Mullan, Hiroko Ohashi, Peter Phipps

All authors from the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University



This chapter considers the potential impacts of study tours as deeply immersive and potentially profound learning and teaching experience. This co-authored chapter describes how study tours can challenge not only students’ certainties and unstated assumptions about the world, but can also transform the teachers that lead study tours. Drawing on study tour experiences from East Asia, Southeast Asia, the Pacific, and on Country in Australia, the authors distil from their experiences of study tours they participated in, an insight that, together, enables this chapter to shed light on the educational and transformative potential of these intensive and multi-sensorial learning experiences.

Keywords: study tours, on Country, inter-cultural student interaction, embodied insights



Learning and teaching can occur in many settings, of which classrooms are only one. Classrooms have an important place in creating regular and routinised spaces where some level of predictability of expectations can aid in the learning and reception of new ideas and conversations. However, learning is a multi-sensory experience, and there are few experiences that are as sensorily all-encompassing as study tours. Study tours place students in new environments and cultural contexts, often with an all-new set of smells, textures, climates, cadences of speech, and palates of taste. The immediacy and presence of these new sensations and different forms of interaction form a Gestalt and steep learning experience which often challenge taken-for-granted understandings of the world (Roffee & Burns 2020, pp. 9-14; Bretag & van der Veen 2017), but which are often deeply memorable experiences, where profound connections are made between the student and the society being visited, as well as the forging of bonds and greater mutual understanding with fellow students and the staff who accompany them (Cooper 2009; Gomez-Lanier 2017).

At RMIT, study tours have long been a staple and regular learning opportunity presented to our students (Nadarajah et al. 2022; Ohashi 2020; Kingston 2018; Cooper 2009; Cerotti et al. 2006; Sinatra and Murphy 1999; Ryan et al. 2015; Mclaughlin et al. 2020). In this chapter, we will present insights from leaders of study tours to different parts of the world. Through each colleague’s reflection, a different insight is unearthed with respect to study tours. As will be seen, Kerry Mullan’s study tours to New Caledonia often complicate some of the certainties held by students; Hiroko Ohashi describes how students on a study tour to Japan come to new understandings of themselves via the Japanese language; new understandings of self in relation to place occur for Peter Phipps’ students during ‘on country’ study tours in Victoria, Australia; Robbie Guevara describes the impacts of students’ observations and questions on him as a study tour guide; and Damian Grenfell, reflecting on a study tour to Timor-Leste, explores the longer-term impacts of ‘being in place’ on student learning.

All these insights emphasise and reflect on one of the possible benefits of a well-conducted study tour, which is to challenge the mindset of at least some, if not most, students as to their relative position with respect to the other societies, and to their ‘natural’ role in ‘fixing the problems’ of (often distant) others. Clare Talwalker (2016) discusses this insightfully (though not in relation to study tours) in a chapter titled ‘Fixing Poverty’, where she analyses her experience teaching a course on poverty in the US. Noting that many students arrive at university caring greatly about one or another cause, such as child labour and unfair trade practices, Talwalker writes:

What can it mean for a student to care about poverty as a general and global problem and seek ways to redress it? Care of this kind – the kind that comes from the embrace of universal problems and generalizable moral positions – is itself a sort of power and privilege, and it tends to lead people to solutions – utilitarian solutions – that are not attentive to the things that are distinctive about a place and a people (Talwalker 2016, p. 123).

Talwalker’s (2016) identification of the desire of students to want to ‘fix poverty’ and develop ‘solutions’ is apposite (see also Nadarajah et al. 2022, pp. 94-95). This tendency to perceive ‘a problem’ naturally leads to a desire to apply a solution to it, and the continued existence of the problem is implicitly because the solution has not been applied by someone adequately, and the well-intended person is willing to do this for those who require it. Courtney E. Martin (2016) has made similar observations. She notes that whereas a twenty-two-year-old American would understand that gun control in the US is a deeply rooted complex problem, ‘if you ask that same 22-year-old American about some of the most pressing problems in a place like Uganda—rural hunger or girls’ secondary education or homophobia—-she might see them as solvable. Maybe even easily solvable.’ Martin goes on to write that ‘There is a whole industry set up to nurture these desires and delusions’ and that the hubris it creates ‘is encouraged through job and internship opportunities, conferences galore, and cultural propaganda—encompassed so fully in the patronising, dangerously simple phrase “save the world.”’

It is crucial to note that neither Talwalker nor Martin are against engaging with societies and cultures other than one’s own. While Martin writes in favour of resisting ‘the reductive seduction of other people’s problems and, instead, fall[ing] in love with the longer-term prospect of staying home and facing systemic complexity’, she also adds that people can go overseas if ‘ [they]must, but stay long enough, listen hard enough so that “other people” become real people. But, be warned, they may not seem so easy to “save”’ (Martin 2016). In a similar vein, Talwaker describes her approach to teaching her students as being…

…much more about motivating college students to learn about the history of a place and to develop an anthropological appreciation of an issue in that place, as this takes them from their embrace of a particular cause (e.g. human trafficking) to a longer and deeper engagement with a particular part of the world and a particular group of people (Talwalker, 2016, p. 124).

Although study tours are often relatively short in duration, as we will see, they can enable students to develop initial insights into the reality, complexity and the utter situatedness of the people they visit and engage with. A sensitively and thoughtfully planned and guided study tour can enable students to glimpse complexity and to appreciate the fact that there is a historical and cultural totality which they will be far from mastering. However, the fact of the insight itself can hopefully be a catalyst for deeper longer-term transformations, and an awareness that distant people and problems have own historical situatedness and complexity.

New Caledonia in the twenty-first century

“New Caledonia in the 21st Century” is a study tour organised by RMIT University in partnership with the University of Melbourne, which has been running biennially since 2015. Kerry Mullan has been involved in the design and realisation of this interdisciplinary study tour from the outset. though I wish to acknowledge that these study tours would not have been possible without support from The University of Melbourne, my colleague Diane de St. Léger, and more recently funding from the New Colombo Plan. The aim of this interdisciplinary study tour is to offer students of (intermediate to advanced)[1] French the opportunity to explore the political and sociocultural aspects of this little-known neighbouring French territory in the Pacific, to better understand its many historical and contemporary parallels with Australia, and to reflect on post-colonialism more broadly as New Caledonia transitions towards new models of government and possible independence from France.[2] The study tour is best described as an enquiry-based field trip where learners are encouraged to explore and question the various tensions and contradictions that they encounter, and to consider New Caledonia their intercultural classroom. Students come from a range of disciplines such as political science, history, geology, linguistics, media and communication, business, international studies etc., and are encouraged in various ways (including assessment design) to experience the program in a way that is relevant to their own field of study. The program includes no formal French language classes; rather, it is conducted entirely in French and learners are provided with multiple opportunities for interaction in the host communities through group and independently organised activities.[3] The three-week program includes stays in four very distinct locations (university campus in Noumea, a Northern Province Kanak community, the tourist area of Noumea, one of the Loyalty Islands) to expose the students to a range of local communities and contexts.

The in-country part of the program is greatly enhanced by twelve hours of pre-departure seminars and workshops. While the complexities of New Caledonia remain somewhat abstract for students during these seminars, the material covered falls into place during our stay. Cultural moments such as ‘la coutume’, a solemn and political occasion where gifts and speeches are exchanged as a mark of respect for the Kanak community one is visiting have a strong impact on students. Standing at the tomb of Jean-Marie Tjibaou (revered pro-independence politician assassinated in 1989) and being welcomed into his community by one of his sons are extremely powerful and moving experiences for the students, moments where the abstract suddenly becomes real, and deep transformative learning takes place. Students regularly undergo profound ‘aha’ moments (Ritz 2011) where they make links between conceptual knowledge and their experiences on the ground. Institutional visits to the Australian Consulate, the New Caledonian Congress, the government headquarters of the Northern Province, the Pacific Community headquarters and the Urban Planning department of the Noumea Town Hall are all central to the students’ learning. It goes without saying that the ability to speak French is critical to the students’ understanding and appreciation of the people they meet, places they visit and their learning in general.

The importance of Australia as New Caledonia’s “older brother” in the Pacific with responsibility towards all Pacific nations is repeated often by the various individuals and institutional representatives we meet during the trip. This message seems to greatly impact the students, many of whom describe the program as life-changing, both in terms of their future studies and/or career, and in terms of their confidence and identity. Some students report changing their subject choices to include more Pacific-, economic- and environmental-related courses, as well as Australian Foreign Policy. Others have made conscious career decisions to include the Pacific region (e.g., joining the Army Reserves and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade), or to undertake postgraduate study focusing on urban sustainable development and climate change. Others see clearly how the skills they developed on the tour (intercultural communication and linguistic skills, open mindedness and cultural awareness) are relevant in their chosen careers. Several students claim that the tour increased their confidence to travel in the Pacific region and to travel in foreign countries in general (as also reported in Lewis and Niesenbaum 2005). Other students were deeply affected by their interactions with the local indigenous Kanak and migrant (Arabic-speaking) communities which mirrored their own backgrounds and gave them the confidence to more fully own their identity. Experiences and reflections such as these are invaluable for developing intercultural understanding and global citizenship.

The designers of the study tour place emphasis on personal learning and reflection in the program, with daily debriefing sessions for students to share their observations and seek clarification where required. Students regularly write their reflective diaries together, checking and consolidating their understanding of their experiences. The program includes tasks designed specifically to develop students’ critical awareness of their environment and direct their attention towards important aspects of their surroundings to deepen their understanding of the territory (cf. De St. Léger & Mullan 2020). This leads to extremely valuable and rewarding discussions where learning evolves for teachers and students alike. One concrete example of this is that following the pre-departure seminars, students generally arrive in New Caledonia with a (somewhat simplistic) pro-independence stance. This tends to change after spending a few days in Noumea, where the complexity of the terrain and the current economic and cultural connections with France become evident. Following the stay in a Kanak community where the students have several discussions with the locals, many develop a better understanding of the centrality of the issue of independence for Kanak communities. However, on leaving, most students declare that they are more unsure of how they feel about the impact of colonialism on indigenous communities, both in New Caledonia and in Australia, than before they arrived. On hearing such revelations, as teachers we consider our objectives to have been successfully met.

Study tour to Japan and a ‘journey to self’

Second language acquisition, which is often referred to as ‘L2’, can provide learners with not only language knowledge and skills, but facilitates opportunities for meeting and getting to know ‘new people’ through the crossing of cultural and linguistic boundaries, spending time in a foreign environment, and being part of a new community. Such opportunities change their epistemic states (Kramsch & Zhang 2018), from a not-knowing to a knowing state, and afford them the inspiration to imagine and understand cultural others not only from their own perspective, but from the perspective of those others. Thus, study tours can be catalysts for promoting and expanding students’ imagining of the world and their relations with others.

In contrast to the previous section where the language was a vehicle but not the focus, this section discusses the educational significance of a language-orientated study tour based on a research project undertaken by Hiroko Ohashi with participants of a study tour organized between the Muroran Institute of Technology (MuroranIT) and RMIT University. These two institutions have been conducting two-way short-term language study tours annually, based on an academic exchange agreement signed between the two universities in 1994.

The research discussed here is based on my research into L2 learners’ perceptions of their Japanese learning experiences. Of the 31 former learners of Japanese from four Victorian universities, four RMIT students who participated in the study tour all described it as a significant event in their overall Japanese learning experience. The data from this research are drawn from their written accounts of their Japanese language learning experience, and follow-up interviews. Insights from the accounts and interviews provided by the RMIT students are discussed here (anonymously, pseudonyms are used) to demonstrate the potential that study tours have to enable deeper and more profound engagement with the language being learned and the culture(s) associated with that language.

Of the six students from RMIT, four named ‘study tour’ as a key event within their whole Japanese language experience. The following, Nem’s comment, is an example:

I signed up for the study tour to Japan. This was my first trip to Japan and an unforgettable one. …This was a great learning experience as well as seeing firsthand some of the concepts I had only read about.

Kate’s experience, written in Japanese, the language she was studying, (translated by Ohashi)suggests how a language study tour provides opportunities to interact with cultural others in the ‘third place’ (Kramsch, 1993; Byram, 1997; Crozet, Liddicoat and Lo Bianco, 1999; Liddicoat et al., 2003), which is essentially a symbolic ‘meeting place’ where second language learners explore the unique space of “interculturality” as they transcend cultural boundaries (Crozet, Liddicoat and Lo Bianco, 1999, p.13) as well as linguistic barriers. Moreover, it gave Kate a chance to reflect on her experiences of encountering otherness during a homestay component of the study tour:

Communication was difficult during the homestay. My Japanese is not good. And my homestay family’s English is not good either. I did not want to speak. I wanted to hide in my room. But I decided to try my best and did it, and eventually my family started to converse with me in my Japanese. I also chose my words according to their English. We met in the middle.

Along with Kate and Nem, Tran had never been to Japan before the study tour, but she was profoundly impacted in a different way. Tran migrated from Singapore to Australia in 2006 at the age of 25 and became interested in Japanese fashion and food. She decided to learn Japanese to challenge herself. Despite her “intrinsic” (her description) motivation, she explains that her “life was changed” after RMIT’s Hokkaido study tour in 2012, where she came to embrace the culture of the hosting community, including her host family. She states in her written account: “I learned about the nuances, values and hospitality (omotenashi)[4] reflected in the Japanese culture. I was deeply moved. It resonated with my emotional self”. She never expected that attending the study tour would affect her “like this”. In the follow-up interview, Tran provided some background to her written account:

I was facing problems at work and I think it just showed me that a lot of the problem rested with me…that I wasn’t expressing my needs … I always felt like there was something there that makes me want to run away. [In the study tour environment] I felt maybe I could … express myself more…Because for the first time in my life I was in a community where I actually felt safe. …Um, even though with English and Mandarin I am fluent in …I don’t think I’ve felt that I belong to a community where I felt safe. But for some reason when I was in Japan … I felt maybe I could … express myself more. I just felt this is something I can do. I, I think this is like a turning point in my life. I realised… I can connect with people … in the community.

Tran’s sense of community and security gave her the legitimacy to express herself even in a foreign language, subsequently changing the way she saw herself and how she related to communities. She states that the study tour allowed her to “experience kindness and generosity in humanity, and for the first time in [her] life, [she] experienced the joy of being involved in a community”.

When my research participants referred to people in their accounts, they typically were either the Japanese teacher or person who inspired them to first learn Japanese; the Japanese who provided them with learning opportunities; and the Japanese whose interactions with them changed their worldview. All these categories of people contribute to motivating L2 learners to learn a second language, according to Shoaib and Dörnyei (2005). However, the Japanese communities that Tran mentions provide much more than motivation to learn a second language. They are deeply involved in their personal growth as individuals and their empowerment as learners.

The three British L2 French learners who provided autobiographical accounts in Coffey’s (2010) study consider their experiences in France as “a phase of key moments (turning points) of personal development” (p.129). Coffey (2010) refers to Bakhtin’s (1986) account of Bildungsroman[5], a narrative of transforming into a better person. Kramsch et al. (2007) argue this concept is currently overlooked in tertiary L2 language education. Trans’s L2 learner autobiographical account suggests that L2 learning is a lot more than simply increasing knowledge and communication skills of a language. It was a life-changing experience for her, from her ‘not-knowing self’ to ‘knowing self’ in terms of the importance of human relations and being involved in a community.

In L2 learning, each language has a different impact on the individual, and each individual is affected differently by a language. There is also a possibility that the learners fall into reductive dichotomous cultural comparisons. However, transformative and life-changing experiences are some of the common themes of L2 learner autobiographical research, and well-designed study tours clearly have the ability to facilitate such experiences. It is, therefore, necessary to design study tour programs through which critical thinking and reflexivity can flourish.

Start Where You Are: Study Tours On Country

Like the other educators contributing to this chapter, Peter Phipps is deeply committed to the pedagogy of experience. Training in Anthropology and Social Theory, combined with extensive backpacker travel and Buddhist studies through South Asia and elsewhere, prepared me, in an ad hoc way, for a range of immersive cross-cultural research and learning experiences.

In this learning journey I am deeply indebted to many great and generous Indigenous Australian teachers and Elders (Huggins, Nakata, Yunupingu, Marika, Ganambar, Marawili, Edwards, Birch, Hayes, Harrison, Thomas, Alberts, Clarke, Coe) who, despite my many re-colonising failings, patiently schooled me into a more sympathetic understanding of Indigenous peoples’ lives, philosophies and life-worlds. In the process of teaching, leading and correcting my work, these Elders have irrevocably transformed my self-understanding, experiences of being and place, and my worldview, to the point where I now understand Country (Indigenous ancestral domains imbued with agency) itself as a teacher (Bawaka Country et al., 2016).

As an educator, I became very interested in the opportunity to offer these kinds of transformative experiences to undergraduate students in a supported, structured and reflexive way through university field studies. At the heart of this process is learning from Indigenous elders and educators, learning through Indigenous pedagogy on Country, with my role as a non-Indigenous facilitator and guide.

My first epiphany that these life experiences formed a practical basis for working across cultures occurred in a remote Yolngu (Indigenous Australian) community in Arnhem Land in 2002. I was flown to a funeral ceremony underway on Elcho Island, to be vetted by the senior Yolngu leaders who were my prospective employers for a consultancy at the Yothu Yindi Foundation. Having been long-schooled in the Himalayas in the basic dispositions of how to sit comfortably on the ground, show bodily respect to teachers, sit silently observant and wait to be directed, as well as a basic understanding of the colonising processes in northern Australia, I passed my job screening.

The following year the Yothu Yindi Foundation enabled me to bring a group of RMIT student volunteers to support the Garma Forum of Indigenous Knowledge, a centrepiece of the annual Garma Indigenous Festival (Phipps, 2011). This was a great opportunity for students to experience an otherwise expensive and inaccessible undertaking. On an escarpment overlooking the Arafura Sea, the culturally significant festival site at Gulkula is a great distance and an expensive trip from Melbourne. Arnhem Land is also a vast Aboriginal Reserve, and entry normally requires permits granted by the Northern Land Council for specific purposes. Students worked in various support roles at the Forum and Festival, learning from Indigenous and other speakers in the forum and having interactions with a wide variety of participants throughout the day: Yolngu hosts, visiting Aboriginal elders and leaders, politicians and government administrators. Students would come together with all other participants each evening for the sunset bunngul (clan-based ritual dance and song) which is the pedagogical core of the festival. While visually and musically powerful, Bunngul is not an entertainment event, it is a ceremonial manifestation of ancestral power, knowledge, Yolngu law, philosophy and spiritual connection to country. As with Yolngu visual art, the selective revelation of the bunngul’s ‘shining’ aesthetics (Morphy, 1989) is a manifestation of that spiritual ancestral domain based in an entirely different understanding of time, space and embodiment from the dominant Western modes of settler-colonialism. Understood this way, the experience of a counter-ontology is profound and can be confronting.

At the end of each day, after bunngul and sharing a meal, I would gather the students around a fire to both check-in with their wellbeing, and to have them share something they had learned that day. These were incredibly potent pedagogical moments, giving students the opportunity to reflect on their experiences, monitor their emotional and physical wellbeing, and to share and learn from those reflections with one another. These sharing circles also created great opportunities for me to provide context, explanation, support and to extend student enquiry into what they were experiencing. This particularly involved supporting students with the dawning recognition that they were on Aboriginal land, in a cultural context where they didn’t know the law, the language or how to behave. In short, students were having a profound experience of decolonial anxiety (Hage, 1998; Henty, 2019) with one student expressing tearfully, “Before I came here I thought we were in Australia, now I don’t know what that is or where I am.”

I encouraged students to share and reflect on these emotional experiences in their field journals, and to understand emotion as both a key part (data) of any intercultural learning experience, but also a critically important part of Indigenous pedagogies (deep listening, connecting to country). It is a delicate balance to guide students through noting and paying attention to these emotional experiences without a collapse into a self-centred or overwhelming experience. While not the same as Indigenous pedagogies, trusting this emotional and bodily feedback has a place in the tradition of phenomenology (Bawaka Country et al., 2016; Abram,1996) and the radical pedagogy of feminist and decolonial thinkers (bell hooks, 2003; Moreton-Robinson, 2015)

Over several years, a fairly consistent pattern of student experience became evident. The first day was wide-eyed amazement at the new context and adapting to the new environment. The second day involved a ‘honeymoon’ sense of wonder and delight to be in the presence of deep cultural richness being shared so openly, and an infatuated experience of the Yolngu world. Usually by the end of the third day, students would share complex expressions of grief through tears and words. This grieving was firstly a sense of shock at their own cultural ignorance in an Indigenous-led context. As they had the opportunity to go deeper into these experiences, some students articulated a sense of betrayal by a colonial education system that systematically misled them about Aboriginal peoples and cultures, and kept them ignorant of their own implication in the settler-colonial project (Hage, 1998; Moreton-Robinson, 2015; Wolfe, 2006).

Many students came away from Garma with an experiential sense of what had been destroyed by the Australian settler-colonial project throughout the continent, particularly in their homes in the heavily and violently colonised urban parts of southern Australia. This could lead them to the conventional (genocidal) conclusion that Aboriginal peoples and cultures are no longer present there; they couldn’t be more wrong. So for the last decade I have used a similar approach bringing students to Indigenous communities much closer to home. The cultural differences are more subtle given the continuing state-sponsored colonising project of destroying Aboriginal peoples, languages, and spiritual connection to country. We start on the RMIT city campus at a recently erected memorial to the Tasmanian Aboriginal resistance fighters who were executed by hanging on that site, and from there explore the Indigenous history of the campus and open a decolonial critique of state institutions including the prison, school and university. Students then learn directly from Indigenous elders about their lived experiences of genocidal colonial violence, forced institutionalisation, and efforts to continue culture despite extreme oppression. These lessons are often delivered with subtle cues, with the deep content expressed as an aside or a gesture for those ready to hear it.

On a recent urban fieldwork trip with deeply experienced educator Uncle Mik Edwards guiding students on the modern Indigenous history of the inner Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy (a mere kilometre from the university), two Aboriginal community members passing in the street stopped to greet Uncle Mik, declare their kinship relationship with him, and tell the students to, ‘Listen to this man!’ and the other, ‘You are lucky to be learning from him, he’s the real deal.’ These spontaneous manifestations of Indigenous life and law in the urban heart of the city are another powerful reorientation for student’s understanding of where they live. As Uncle Mik instructs them, ‘Be aware where you put your feet on this country; my history lives wherever you put a foot down.’

We also leave the city for Indigenous community visits, including the cultural landscape at Lake Condah in western Victoria. This is a significant cultural site where RMIT staff (past and current) have strong, long-standing relationships (including Bruce Partland, Mik Edwards and others training the Budj Bim Rangers; Jim Sinatra, Yaso Nadaradjah, Barry Judd, Al Fricker, Libby Porter and others taking students and staff there over two decades). This aquaculture system for farming eels and other fish was recently World Heritage listed for both its living cultural and natural significance, after a twenty- year process driven by the Gunditjmara people. Guided by the Budj Bim Rangers students learn how to walk respectfully on country, and following the instructions in the core course text, Nyernila (VACL 2014), some start to listen more deeply to Indigenous people and places. They learn directly about the agency and organisations, driven and controlled by Aboriginal people, that are reclaiming and transforming land and culture and lives in this part of Australia. The Winda-Mara Aboriginal Corporation and its offshoots is now the largest employer in the regional town of Heywood, with interests in cultural heritage protection, health, welfare, land management, cattle farming and of course, cultural tourism and education. Students are again confronted by preconceived ideas of Aboriginal people and communities as victims in need of assistance, the fantasy of white benevolence, to directly witnessing these people rebuilding their own lives and communities in defiance of the colonial experience. One study tour included a night spent camping in solidarity with Indigenous activists at the Djab Warrung Heritage Protection Embassy, a struggle against the destruction of 800-year-old culturally significant trees by the State for road widening, with follow-up student actions back in the city for an arrested Indigenous activist. The complexity of a ‘progressive’ State Government seeking treaty with Aboriginal people on the one hand, while continuing cultural destruction and mass Indigenous incarceration on the other, was a powerful learning experience for these students.

Of course, these processes are complex, and Indigenous communities across Australia suffer the traumatic effects of ongoing colonisation (from hyper-incarceration to health issues), but these fieldwork experiences offer students the possibility to understand these complexities more deeply, and what lies beyond the colonial characterisations of Aboriginal peoples as either ‘deep wisdom elders’ or downtrodden victims. Further, and equally as importantly, it gives students the opportunity to critically and reflexively reorient themselves in the settler-colonial experience. They are encouraged to critically reflect on their received histories and culture, and in the process also open themselves to Indigenous life worlds. One fieldwork course, or even a whole university degree cannot decolonise any of us, but it can create the possibilities to set us on a life-long learning journey.

Becoming Active Global Citizens

When I started conducting study tours in the late 1990s, most of the objectives of study tours were about achieving cross-cultural competencies. It is more recently that a more holistic approach, active global citizenship, has become more widely recognised (see Brookings, 2017). It is a result of my experiences as a study tour leader that I feel I have grown as an active global citizen and observed how study tours foster active global citizenship. These experiences come from having conducted three international community development study tours to the Philippines (where I was born and raised), two to Vietnam and one to Myanmar. It is from these study tours that I have gained lasting insights, two of which I will share here to help illustrate how study tour leaders and students alike can grow as active global citizens. The first of these insights began with a question which in turn helped me to strengthen my capacity to facilitate the development of one of the characteristics of global citizenship, the ability to identify the contemporary impacts of global and historical processes (Brookings, 2017, p. 4).

“Robbie, why isn’t anyone talking about the elephant in the room?” It was after the first week of my third study tour to the Philippines that was designed to coincide with a global conference on migration that one of the students asked this question. This happened after a visit to a local women’s NGO that worked with Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), particularly women. The discussions explored a range of initiatives addressing the challenges of returning OFWs including investing savings, reproductive health, family separation, etc. I was puzzled by the question so I asked the student to clarify. He replied, “You know, why isn’t anyone talking about the Catholic Church and the role it plays in society?”

I quickly realised that, indeed, the conference was hosted by a Catholic women’s university, we would see countless churches along the routes of our travels in the city, prayers would open each day of the global conference together with the national anthem, and crucifixes could be found in the shared dormitory rooms where the students were staying. But while there was a discussion of Spanish colonial history and an introduction to Catholicism in the Philippines during our pre-departure briefing, the ongoing role of the Catholic Church in the daily lives of Filipinos still needed to be more explicitly identified and discussed, drawing on students’ personal experiences during the study tour.

I had to reflect on this ‘silence’. I realised then that as someone who had been brought up Catholic and had gone to a Catholic school, the church and its teachings were like the air I breathe. I realised that as a Filipino leading a study tour in the Philippines, I needed to be more self-aware about this unintended ‘silence’ if I was to effectively facilitate the understanding of the impacts of global and historical processes on Filipino life. By making these ‘silences’ more explicit to the students, they would be able to fully appreciate the complex interconnections that helped to account for the realities not just of women migrant workers, but of all the people they were meeting in the Philippines.

The second insight relates to the feature of global citizenship that the Brookings Institute describes as “a willingness to act to advance a common good” (Brookings Institute, 2017, p. 4). At my final study tour, I told the students, “This is going to be my last study tour.” I recall having shared this with the students who gathered for drinks. Anyone who has led a study tour will know that it is unlike any normal credit-bearing class. There is so much curriculum development and logistical preparation required even before you select the students; while you are in-country you are on-call twenty-four hours; and at the conclusion, you still have marking to complete. But that all tends to fade into the background as the non-academic outcomes, like student-initiated actions and on-going professional connections, take shape and bear fruit.

However, as I later reflected on my remark to the students, I wondered whether it might have been more appropriate to ask, “When will this study tour end?” While a study tour does officially end, achieving the stated objectives of community development is a process that I would describe as ‘awareness to action’, lasting well beyond the final assignment submission date.

My first study tour to the Philippines, focused on community development and the environment, resulted in students publishing their reflections in a local North Melbourne newspaper. The students also organised a local indigenous Filipino elder and an NGO worker to Melbourne to speak at a shareholder’s meeting of an Australian mining company that was negatively impacting on the elder’s community, which we had visited during the study tour. This visit to Melbourne contributed to some banks withholding loans which delayed the expansion of mining operations in the Philippines. The second study tour was focused on community development and indigenous communities, which involved a week-long immersion in a remote indigenous community. After the study tour, the students decided to organize a photo exhibition and sale, to raise funds for a scholarship to try to ensure that the community had a primary school teacher who lived locally. This was to address the problem shared by the community leaders that the current teacher was only able to conduct classes three days a week, as she must travel on Monday and return home on Fridays because she does not live locally. A few years later, I received a message to say that the funds raised had contributed to one of the locals graduating with a teaching degree and that person had become the primary school teacher, so the children could have classes five days a week.

A few years after one of the study tours to the Philippines, I met a study tour student, who had since graduated. She said to me: Robbie, I apologise that I have not been able to travel back to contribute to addressing the problems of the communities we visited in the Philippines.” I replied by asking her what she was doing. She said she was working with communities in Myanmar. I told her that the aim of the study tour was not to encourage students to work in the Philippines, but to cultivate an understanding of the complexities of working in community development, to develop cross-cultural competencies to meaningfully engage with people from different backgrounds, and to act on the challenges one sees, wherever they are. Back then, I did not have the phrase expressing what we were seeking to foster not only in students but in ourselves as study tour leaders: ‘active global citizenship’.

The Political Context of Student Learning and Engagement

The Timor-Leste Research Program (known in Tetun as ‘Pezkiza Timor-Leste’) is a teaching and research program established by Damian Grenfell in 2003 at RMIT University ( While the program is focused intellectually on questions of nation-formation in Timor-Leste, one of its longer-term objectives has been to facilitate connections between people within Timor-Leste and beyond (particularly Australia given RMIT’s location). This objective has been driven by the fact that while the repressiveness of the Indonesian occupation (1975 to 1999) had resulted in few foreigners having sustained first-hand knowledge of life in Timor-Leste, following independence the territory was comparably saturated by foreign workers undertaking a wide variety of humanitarian, security, development and peacebuilding initiatives. While the latter was at once much needed the international presence could nevertheless at times be characterised as unreflexive, instrumentalising and limited in terms of building longer-term forms of solidarity.  Extending on themes explored earlier in this chapter (see for instance Mullan), the focus in this case study is on how a study tour to Timor-Leste facilitated new sets of long-term engagement by students that have endured more than a decade on.

Since its formation, the Timor-Leste Research Program (TLR) has taken a multi-dimensional approach to engagement while seeking to be cognisant of the impact of working in both a post-colonial and post-conflict context. It is never possible, as an academic, to work freely of the power dynamics that sustain acute imbalances between a Global North and Global South for the very fact that academia has itself been so bound up perpetuating power inequities. That said, via the TLR there has long been the attempt to encourage a form of engagement that is framed by some form of mutuality and solidarity rather than a one-sided instrumentalism that mimics other forms of foreign extraction. Both teaching and research endeavours have sought to de-emphasize the ‘individual narrative’ and rather try to see each act as endeavours of exchange and the forming of social ties, reciprocity and solidarity. This has meant for instance holding conferences both in Melbourne and Dili where East Timorese organizing and representation was central, East Timorese attending courses at RMIT University (see below), of translating and distributing research within Timor-Leste, facilitating publishing opportunities and co-presenting research with fellow East Timorese researchers, and so forth. A study tour—which by its nature draws together students who are often inexperienced working and studying in particular sites—risks accentuating power imbalances if students gain far more benefit from the experience than a local community. Given this, much thought was put into whether a study to Timor-Leste was even legitimate (did Timor need another plane load of students?) and in turn was there any hope in being able to organise one that might allow great learning and in turn for new sets of longer-term connections across societies?

Following eight years of work in Timor-Leste, a study tour was initiated in 2011 that drew both undergraduate and postgraduate students together to investigate the consequences of Western-led humanitarian interventions. Subtitled ‘Contextualising the Development-Peace-Security Nexus’ the tour sought to engage with critical sympathy the attempt to address the consequences of mass societal violence by an international community. For a study tour it was comparatively small—twelve students, one RMIT staff member and a number of East Timorese working to support in country activities—and comprised both significant pre-departure sessions along with debriefs with students on their return. On the study tour itself areas of focus centred on the kinds of generic intervention templates that had been deemed certain to create peace (as in the ‘liberal peace’) and what this approach had meant for East Timorese in the pursuit of a recovery of the devastation of the Indonesian occupation. Given that over 2006 to 2008 Timor-Leste experienced what is generically referred to as ‘the crisis’—where an initial split in the military led to violence between state actors, communal conflict and large-scale displacement—there was ample terrain by which to explore the consequences of the international intervention and its emphasis on state-building.

While longer-term engagement has been a broader aim of the TLR there was little sense at the time of how successful an aspect this would be with regards to the study tour. As with the Philippine study tour discussed above, there was perhaps at best a hope that such an exercise in learning may have assisted students in their pathway to being ‘global citizens’ and certainly nothing obviously stated in terms of ongoing expectations beyond the tour itself. Nevertheless, more than a decade on, some half of those students who originally participated remain somehow involved, as members of a group of RMIT students, alumni and staff who volunteer as part of an English training program housed at RMIT, as publishing academically, by completing further study (three are currently completing their PhDs), and by working in Timor-Leste for extended periods of time. While the reasons for this engagement are various and clearly relate to the students themselves and the opportunities provided to them since by East Timorese, there are three reasons that are worth identifying here in terms of how a study tour can inform such ongoing connection.

In the first instance, to answer the intellectual questions framing the study tour necessitated an engagement with a variety of different actors and travel to different districts, centres and villages. As such all kinds of organisations were visited ranging from the Australian Defence Force with their lunch flown in via TOLL, the United Nations in its Dili compound, international and local NGOs, and local government offices. Importantly, students also sat in the homes of East Timorese families, discussed development with village level cooperatives, engaged with locals in markets and over meals, went to Sunday mass, and stood in the fields where agricultural initiatives sought to counter the constant experience of hunger. In other words, while confronting and fatiguing, the students got a firsthand insight into the development-peace-security nexus from all angles, saw the differentiated resources drawn up by actors and the very different sets of approaches utilised. Framing the study tour with an intellectual question meant that each of these learning moments could be threaded together so at once to demonstrate how fraught interventions can be while not arguing against them per se. What was not realised at the time though was that this approach was enabling an intellectual pathway that allowed students to dissent from ‘international norms’ without disabling the possibility for finding their own pathway forward. In other words, the students could still imagine a future for themselves in Timor-Leste even while navigating a significant critique of the international efforts in front of them.

Secondly, and resonating with the discussion of study tours above (see Phipps’ contribution for instance), the learning that occurs ‘in place’ can have a profound impact on students. For example, students relayed how reading the same article in place (i.e. in Dili) had a profoundly different effect than reading the same article previously in Melbourne. Students were able to take the words about a place and mix them with the grit and texture where the sensory dimensions of being there meant a grounding of the otherwise abstract ideas of academic inquiry. Such ideas then become mixed and tested as part of the student’s own personal interpretations and experiences while adding a form of first-hand legitimation to the critiques of humanitarian intervention. This combination of learning can have a politicising impact as a need for action is identified, as can the emotions that are conjured through such learning experiences also motivate students to want to act. Fury, sadness, grief and guilt were common refrains as students visited massacre sites, saw the impact of development failure, experienced acute poverty (many for the first time) and also responded to the impacts of the failures of successive Australian Governments to support East Timorese in their pursuit of independence. Together then, being ‘in place’ led to a change in learning opportunities that meant a more likely interest in Timor-Leste beyond the study tour itself.

A third dimension that has been reflected on in terms of ongoing student engagement with Timor-Leste has been the institutional dimensions afforded by the Timor-Leste Research program at RMIT University. The study tour did not occur in isolation of a university program of engagement, which meant that there was a kind of intellectual and institutional infrastructure that provided follow up opportunities for students to participate in events, to work, undertake further study and to publish their own ideas. In particular, this group of students have been instrumental in the ongoing sustainability of the Matadalan ba Malu program (the non-literal translation meaning ‘shared mutual care and guidance’) which has provided annual English language training for East Timorese women at RMIT in Melbourne. While some students from the study tour did not go on to engage in Timor-Leste in an ongoing way (with our hope that they are the global citizens wherever they may be), a significant portion have built and maintained a durable and longer term professional and personal interest within their social networks. This has been one of the most fulfilling, even if not necessarily anticipated, outcomes of the study tour.

By Way of Conclusion

Although study tours are challenging to conduct and require an immense amount of logistical and administrative work at all stages – including after their conclusion – and although the number of students on a study tour is often relatively small, as compared to regular classes on campus, what comes through in the above contributions is the profound value and impact that study tours can have on those who participate in them. They are, therefore, an important element of the curriculum. As noted in the above contributions, students gain better insight into a particular place and the people who live and have lived there but also, study tours can precipitate transformational changes to the worldviews and the inner sense of self, not only in students, but also the staff involved as study tour leaders.


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[1] B1-C1 on the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages).

[2] The third and final referendum result from December 2021 has not been recognised by the indigenous Kanak community. A transition period is in place until 30 June 2023, during which time it is thought that another referendum could take place.

[3] Group cohesion is vital for providing the support and confidence which allow individuals to challenge themselves linguistically and to go beyond their comfort zone, where maximum learning takes place (cf. De St. Léger & Mullan 2018).

[4] Omotenashi is considered as Japanese hospitality culture, means warmly treating and entertaining visitors.

[5]  Bildungsroman is in fact a historical typology of the novel in European tradition (Frow et al. 2020) which follows a storyline of protagonists who go through the journey and grow.



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A Skilled Hand and a Cultivated Mind Copyright © 2024 by Julian Lee; Maki Yoshida; Jindan Ni; Kaye Quek; and Anamaria Ducasse is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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