“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”
The White House recently created a new Study Abroad Office to somehow support students who take the initiative to further their education outside the US borders while incurring crippling debt upon graduation. I really don’t see the impetus for creating such an office other than greater government surveillance of students abroad who are already encouraged to notify the US embassy in the host country — it’s not like the government is going to provide better loans or grants for the students. It will supposedly “manage” government scholarships for students who study abroad, but there’s no information whether it will expand such scholarships to relieve the debt burden.
Reading about this government initiative of sorts got me thinking about the advice I’ve given to students over the years — take at least a semester and study abroad. According to US government data, fewer than 10% of students study abroad, and only 1.5% of university students went abroad in 2012.
Back in 2000, I took a semester abroad. As a monolinguist at the time I headed for England — I was already studying English, literature, and creative writing, so it made sense to me. It, of course, brought up the old Simpsons joke, “Pfft, English. Who needs that? I’m never going to England.” All joking aside, I was desperate to get out of central Pennsylvania one way or another.
Finding an alternate study abroad program
My university denied my application because they claimed my grades weren’t good enough. As an alternative, I was pointed to study abroad paths that weren’t managed by my university — I applied for programs through other schools. I originally applied for a program in Oxford (but not at that Oxford University). I was told I was the only student on that program. My parents convinced me to change my school choice to one in London so I could be with other people from the program — who knows if that worked out for the best as I still talk with only one person for that semester abroad.
As most of the people housed in my apartment building were in the same program that required more class time than mine did, I didn’t get to interact with them too much. They also hated going to the pubs on our street because they thought the patrons were unfriendly — we were in London during the Bush-Gore election and faced a lot of political commentary from the Brits (I laughed it off as the locals attempted to offend the American; they usually bought me a beer after 15 minutes when they realized I wasn’t offended). I took the American jokes in stride and occasionally had some British jokes as retorts (it almost got me in trouble after I laughed when the bartender called my Australian friend a Kiwi).
Classes in London
Classes in London were amazing — I feel that I got a better education in those literature classes than I did in almost any of my courses back home. Of course, I took courses that weren’t offered back home — modern British theatre, colonial literature, and an art and culture course only offered to international students (there was also a renaissance literature class in there). I was told I signed up for too many courses (I originally wanted five, but the advisor wouldn’t allow me). Unlike a lot of international students, I showed up for all my classes — no sense in wasting the educational value I was receiving.
Meeting the locals
I hung out at the student union most nights — they had a large pub for the students with beer that was much cheaper than anywhere else in London. That’s where I met all the other students; and I rarely ran into any other international students. I learned about the school and places to wander around and outside of London. Everyone had suggestions for me.
I must admit that most British people I met didn’t think too highly of Americans — the stereotypes they held did not apply to me. The first step toward breaking preconceptions about groups of people is an encounter with those people. Time and again I heard comments about how I wasn’t like the other Americans these people knew. I didn’t feel like an ambassador for my country, but I might have at least changed some perceptions.
After I returned from my semester abroad, I volunteered at the university study abroad office — the office was happy to have someone with experience in studying abroad through a third party. I helped students who couldn’t find a program through the university that fit their academic and travel goals. When I met younger students during those final three semesters, I encouraged them to take a semester abroad — two of my friends enrolled in different programs in Europe during our last year.
Learning to travel solo
Studying abroad is what opened my eyes to the world of travel. I forever became a wanderer after that. I was forced to travel alone because I couldn’t convince any one of the Americans in my program to travel for a weekend or even three days. I got fed up and took a university-sponsored trip to Amsterdam (I knew no one on that trip). After that trip I took another three-day solo journey to Dublin, where I met a lot of fun locals who pointed me toward some of the best sights of the city (though everyone was awful with directions). I even took a longer solo trip around Scotland while I was practically homeless between the end of the semester and the time my parents arrived for a vacation.
Not only did I learn more about literature and culture in class, but I also learned to trust myself and be more independent. Any free day I had was spent wandering the city in search of whatever I might find — sometimes I had more specific destinations rather than my usual lost wanderings.
There’s more that a student can learn from studying abroad. Most people go to non-English-speaking countries to improve their language skills, which is something I wish I could’ve done if I hadn’t given up on Spanish after my freshman year. It’s also what drove me to move abroad after grad school with intention of traveling and learning a new language that I wouldn’t forget.
More than just improving Americans’ perception of the world around them, it improves other people’s perception of Americans. One kind person traveling abroad will encounter many people who may not have a favorable impression of that person’s culture — that one kind person can change the opinion of everyone he/she encounters. Conscientious travelers do more for international relations than all the diplomats combined.
If you’re a student reading this, I encourage you to take a semester abroad; see more of the world around you while you’re young. Higher education is much more expensive than it was when I earned my degrees (and it wasn’t so long ago), but the long-term payoff of a more well-rounded education is worthwhile.
Have you studied abroad? Did it improve your education? How did it change your perspective?