The White Polar Bear Project

Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.
~ Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1863


In the age of selfie sticks and Snapchat it can be difficult for students studying abroad to connect to their host culture. It's easy to tell students to get off their phones and connect with the world around them. However, as Dostoevsky pointed out, if you tell someone not to think about something, they won't be able to stop thinking about it. We realize telling students to get off their phones is ineffective, so we've decided to work with technology to try to help them develop a deeper understanding of the culture they’re in and create stronger memories through active attention. To do this, we’ve created a number of mindfulness activities that students can do anywhere in the world, which they can access by downloading our app.

Studies are finding statistical support for what many have known for two millenia: that practicing mindfulness enhances mental and physical health, creativity, and contextual learning (Kolb & Yanagneh). We realize that traditional ideas of mindfulness do not appeal to everyone. Therefore, we have created a number of activities that we believe can help students achieve similar outcomes through mindfully engaging with their environment through active attention and no judgement. The following questions have been designed to encourage students to think about parts of their study abroad environment that they may not consider in the moment.

***These questions were not designed to be appropriate for every destination, therefore we ask our students to pursue options that are safe, accessible and appropriate for the culture they are in.***

  picture of a water bottle  picture of a lot of bicyclespicture of the sun shining through the cloudsimage of a small rural home

  • Do the people around you drink out of paper cups or do they use travel mugs? What about plastic water bottles? Are places to recycle prominent?
  • Go into a local grocery store or market. Look at the produce, where is it from? What does it look like? How are things packaged?
  • If possible, eat lunch outside, if not, eat lunch near a window. Observe little changes outside while you eat. 
  • Look at the cars: What are they like? How are they powered? Is there a lot of traffic due to cars? How else do people get around?
  • Look at the homes, what are they built out of? Are they close together or far apart? Do they have outdoor space?

 picture of a croissant on a table with the coliseum in the backgroundpicture of a man and woman standing back to backpicture of rural Guatemalan women in traditional clothingpicture of someone wearing snow boots

  • Listen to the way people speak. Is it loudly or softly? Formally or informally?
  • Notice the role of gender where you live. What is one thing that you notice about men? What is one thing that you notice about women?
  • Look at the clothing of people around you, is it bright or more subdued? Is it designed for practicality or fashion? What fabrics are used?
  • Look at people’s footwear throughout your day. What do you notice? Is footwear for fashion or practicality? Does the weather affect footwear?
  • Go to a popular tourist location, grab a coffee and watch tourists. What are they doing? How do they treat one another? Do they notice the locals? Do the locals notice them?

 picture of a person looking up at the art around thempicture of postcards picture of a lot of stairspicture of people waving flags from a variety of countries

  • Do you see the flag often? Are the flags big or small?  Where do you see it?
  • Is the community that you are in accessible to everyone? Are stairs necessary to access buildings or parts of buildings? When crossing the road is there sound to indicate when to wait and when to cross? What else do you notice that would be a barrier to a person with a disability?
  • Instead of taking public transportation, when possible, walk to where you need to go (no headphones) and focus on what you see/hear/smell. Don’t let your mind wander from the present. If you must rely on public transportation, get off one stop early and walk the rest of the way.
  • Look up:  Sometimes the most amazing things — such as architectural details and life vignettes happening in open windows — are just above our eyesight.
  • Go buy a postcard. Pick one that shows your favourite place. Reflect on why you like this place. Write it down. Mail it to someone you care about.

For more information please see:

Mindfulness and Experiential Learning. Bauback Yeganeh, Ph.D. and David Kolb, Ph.D. Working Paper WP-09-01. Department of Organizational Behavior. Weatherhead School of Management. Case Western Reserve University. March 2009.

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