Peggy Hsu Study Abroad

Peggy Hsu stands on a bridge in Budpest.

Students who spend a semester or a year abroad expect things to be different when they arrive in their new country. They know there will be a different language, different food, and a different culture. It is such a common experience that it has a well-known name: culture shock.

Often, the lesser-known cousin of culture shock takes these same students by surprise.

That lesser-known cousin is called reverse culture-shock, and Information Science major Peggie Hsu ’16 knows something about it. “I spent a semester in Hungary and when I got back to Cornell,” says Hsu during a recent conversation in Gates Hall, “it felt like I came back to a new place. In reality, Cornell had not changed, but I was a different person. I had started to see things much differently since I spent a semester abroad.”

When the idea of going abroad for a semester first struck Hsu, she almost dismissed it as impossible. “As an Information Science major, I just assumed my academic program would be too structured to allow me to go anywhere,” says Hsu. “But then I talked with Amy Sindone and she helped me see it was totally do-able. I applied in the fall semester of junior year and I was in Budapest for the spring semester of junior year.”

Sindone, who is the Undergraduate Advising Coordinator for Cornell’s Department of Information Science, talked Hsu through the process and helped ensure that Hsu’s class credits would transfer and she would stay on track to graduate on time.

Being in a new place was not a new experience for Hsu. She was born and raised in Taiwan, but when she was in the fifth grade her family moved to Shenzhen on mainland China. She says she struggled a bit in middle school in China and her parents thought she might benefit more from attending high school in the United States. So she came to the Albany, NY area and attended high school at the Emma Willard School. “It was very far from home and a bit scary—especially at first,” says Hsu, “but I learned a lot about how to rely on myself.”

Hsu decided to apply to Cornell for her undergraduate studies and started off as an Applied Physics major. After a short while she was introduced to computer software and immediately saw the possible value of learning how to create software to help people. She quickly changed her major to Information Science and she has not looked back since. Hsu’s professional ambitions are to take what she is learning about human-computer interactions and apply it to improving the user experience involved in various assistive technologies. She will be starting a Masters of Science in Information program at the University of Michigan in the fall, specializing in Human-Computer interactions.

“I know that if I want to design anything that will be truly be of use to people around the world, I will have to know about differences between cultures,” says Hsu. “It is so important to be able to empathize with people, and spending time in other places and cultures really helps with this. I learned a lot in my academic classes in Budapest, but I learned even more from all the travel I did on weekends and breaks.”

Considering all that Hsu learned and then brought back to Cornell, maybe the term “reverse culture-shock” is not the right one to use. “What changed wasn’t Cornell,” emphasizes Hsu. “I came back with a greater appreciation for the fact that different people in different places have different values.  I also learned to see things differently now that I am back at Cornell.  I used to feel pretty stressed and driven to do everything. Now I am so much better able to identify what is making me stressed and to really then just focus in on what is important. Also, I feel much more adventurous now. I think everyone should study abroad.”

Rather than sounding like reverse culture-shock, it sounds a lot more like growing older and growing wiser.

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