Contrary to popular belief, there are study abroad winners and losers. I should know. I was a study abroad loser.
Along with mastering Beruit, pulling an all-nighter, and completing the Walk of Shame (or Stride of Pride), study abroad is one of those classic college experiences that if you missed out on means you failed at college. Study abroad is such an incredible opportunity to go out into the world, discover your passion, meet people, and fall in love. A really good friend of mine met his now wife while studying abroad in South Africa, and they just had a baby a little less than a week ago.
Honestly, it is extremely worth saving up your “going out fund” sophomore year so you can have a kick-ass time going abroad your junior year. Most American colleges also apply financial aid to study abroad programs in order to make them accessible to all. Plus, by the time junior year hits, most people get bored with the routine of their school and have usually gotten into a few tiffs with friends. Study abroad is a great way to hit the refresh button on your social browser, so that you can return for an awesome low-stress senior year filled with nostalgia and fond affection for your school.
All of this sounds well and good, but even if you make the correct decision to study abroad, you can still mess it up. Here’s how…
Fallacy #1: Studying Abroad in Europe
Don’t do it. Going to Europe is so the ’90s.
I say this as an individual who spent her junior spring studying abroad at the University of Cambridge in England. I was an English major with an interest in Victorian Literature, so it only made sense to me to attend one of the schools a lot of the literary giants of the 1800s attended and lectured at.
While I did enjoy most of my time in England and while I did end up making a ton of British friends whom I’m still in contact with today, it was a terrible cultural experience. England is basically a lame, always overcast version of America, and you can clearly tell that it’s an empire gone to seed. The English try so absurdly hard to retain the archaic vestiges of law and order, and they are also generally an extremely pessimistic lot. Plus, the food is atrocious.
Even as I backpacked throughout Europe (Amsterdam, Prague, Berlin, Nice, Monte Carlo, Madrid, and Barcelona), I found everything to be extremely familiar and extremely comfortable. Aside from learning who Chagall is and how delicious Patatas Bravas are, I didn’t feel as though I was learning a whole lot or being challenged by my environment. There was no language barrier, and most people spoke English. Our accommodations looked exactly like motels in America. Aside from Nice and Barcelona, the food generally was pretty bland and not that great.
By contrast, the summer before my junior year, I had the great privilege of finding an internship in Beijing, China during the 2008 Summer Olympics. I had no idea what to expect from going to China, having never studied Mandarin or taken an East Asian studies class. I was dropped into a completely different world where I had to struggle and make mistakes in order to get by. The vast majority of Chinese do not speak English, and very few signs are transliterated and translated into English.
It was a tremendously steep learning curve, but along with the band of Americans I was with, we discovered and learned so much as we tried to figure out and survive in Beijing. Together we scaled a portion of the Great Wall that was closed to the public, but climbed anyway because our tour guide was this crazy local who could hop from step to step and then would light up his pipe as he waited for the rest of us to huff up the mountain. We lived in yurts in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, witnessed the amazing transformation of Beijing from pre- to post-Olympics life, and sampled every kind of food from scorpions to huo guo to Peking duck to chuanr.
As a result of my time in China in 2008, I returned back the summer following my study abroad experience in England and then lived there my first year out of college. With England, I don’t really care about going back, because I feel like I’ve done it. Six months was more than enough. With China, I’m always actively seeking ways to return so I can travel to other provinces and foolishly attempt to experience every aspect of it.
The issue some people raise is the language barrier. If you don’t speak French or Arabic, how can you ever study abroad in Morocco? Well, interestingly, a lot of the universities that are partnered with your home university feature study abroad programs in English. Here is a helpful language –> country grid:
- English: Instead of going to the United Kingdom, go to…Singapore, South Africa, Australia, Hong Kong.
- French: Instead of going to France, go to…Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Quebec, Ivory Coast, Haiti, Mauritius, Madagascar.
- Spanish: Instead of going to Spain, go to…Argentina, Chile, Costa Rico, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Ecuador, Venezuela.
- Portuguese: Instead of going to Portugal, go to…Brazil.
- German: Instead of going to Germany, go to…well, I guess Germany and Switzerland really are you’re only options.
Fallacy #2: The “Study” in Study Abroad Means Something
It does not. “Studying” should be the lowest on your list of priorities when you go abroad. In some academic and social circles, study abroad has been rebranded as “party abroad,” which is the end of the spectrum you should aim for. That doesn’t mean playing flip-cup in your flat every night or only going to clubs and bars in your city. It means traveling within and outside of your study abroad country any chance you get. It means going to museums and exhibits and shows. It means eating the crazy cuisine. It means taking an African drumming lesson, doing Yoga with an instructor who only speaks Hindi, and dining with your local Japanese fisherman and his family.
Do not pick an academically rigorous program. Cambridge was just that. Even though I knew all of my grades would go back to the States as pass/fail, I still worked my butt off because a) I’m an idiot and a scholar and b) all of the British students around me were working their butts off. Granted I did get to backpack across Europe during our monster Spring Break (5 full weeks from March to April). But, other friends of mine were taking day trips on weekends and rarely saw the inside of their apartments.
Fallacy #3: Only Hanging out with Americans
Don’t do it. Don’t create another US Embassy wherever you study abroad. You will kick yourself if you don’t establish any local contacts while you’re abroad. These are the people you’ll be able to stay with if you ever want to return. These are the people who can help you get your first job that actually pays well. These are the people who will leave an indelible effect on your lives.
It took Obama a solid 3.5 years to just begin to reverse the Ugly American stereotype Dubya had propagated for 8 years. Don’t set our country back by only associating with Americans and turning you’re study abroad experience into an “Us vs. Them” dynamic!