I recently returned from a two week research based trip to Romania with six other American graduate students. The purpose of the trip was to research topics with Romanian graduate student partners. As much as the entire group was prepared for the exchange, such as what to expect culturally, what to bring, and so on; no description could come close enough to the actual experience.
Aside from the cultural differences which, surprisingly, were fairly easy to adjust to, the first major stumbling block in preparing the research was actually finding any research in the first place. I recalled a conversation I had recently with my mother where I said “It’s 2009; if it’s not on the internet then it doesn’t exist.” I said this in jest, but quickly found it was oddly appropriate. My university’s library subscribes to hundreds of journals on topics ranging anywhere from public administration to psychopharmacology to literary criticism. Naturally, my preliminary research on my topic, freedom of information and government transparency, started here. It was also the point in the process where I realized things were not going to go as smoothly as I had thought. For one, academic papers on Romania in any subject were severely lacking. Those few that I could find focused more on Eastern Europe in general or states like Poland or Hungary.
After overcoming that roadblock, thanks in no small part to my Romanian colleagues, we were able to develop interview questions to ask as part of the research. The interviews, at least for my project, ranged from city staff to prefect staff to NGOs and university faculty. The development of questions and actually doing the interview was the easiest part of the whole experience. I have a feeling that may be because I do interviews at my full-time job on at least a weekly basis, if not more.
Upon our return to the U.S., I was struck by several things that I had failed to notice before. Not just the military personnel walking around the airport with submachine guns in Bucharest. We had been advised to take travelers checks along since we would most likely not be able to use our bank cards. This turned out to be true; out of the 7 students and 2 professors who went along; mine was the only bankcard that worked. Along this same line, the Romanian bureaucracy (at least in the banking sector) required 45 minutes to exchange 10 traveler’s checks. I decided after that ordeal to not cash in the rest of mine and rely on ATMs for the rest of the trip. Exchanging the checks in the U.S. took all of 5 minutes, 4 of which were spent signing them all.
Perhaps more importantly from an academic point of view, I was introduced to the difference between publishing for a narrow audience and publishing for a wide audience. In the United States, we take it for granted that everything that’s published is in English. In Romania, publishing a paper can take two routes; Romanian or English. A paper published in Romanian will be accessible largely only to those in Romania, Moldova, or to anyone who can read Romanian. Publishing in English results in the possibility of a paper being read anywhere in the world.
I must also point out that the Romanian colleagues with whom we worked, and the Romanian people generally, were possibly the kindest and most generous people any of us had ever met. In comparison to my other study abroad experience to France in 2004 as an undergraduate, this experience, despite being only two weeks long, taught me more about a different culture and more about the topic at hand. I’ve been told that public administration study abroad programs are far and few between. I feel that this is a disadvantage in a world that is becoming increasingly globalized to the point where questions about the Greek economy affect financial markets around the world. It’s one thing to study differences in administration and policies between Los Angeles and Chicago or California and New Jersey; it’s quite another to look at the differences between the U.S. and Romania.