Five Tips for Americans Studying Abroad
Based on twelve years of experience teaching study abroad classes, drawing on wisdom I’ve gained through the years myself and no little bit that I’ve learned from my students, here are a few suggestions I’ve come up with to help Americans make the most of a study abroad experience.
1. Be open to your new environment, and actively engaged in it.
This may involve some revolutionary acts, such as putting away the I-pod, minimizing time spent on the Internet, and turning off (or at least silencing) the cell phone so that you can truly open yourself up to a new part of the world, and allow it to bombard your senses for a change, instead of the “same-old, same-old.”
This may sound harsh, or ridiculous. But honestly, how are you going to truly experience a new place if you’re surrounding yourself with the same sounds, sights, and distractions you are used to dealing with on an everyday basis back home? Did you hear those musicians in the Metro, or were you too busy listening to your own private soundtrack? Have you noticed that many of the street names in the place you’re visiting have historical significance? Who is that statue of, what does that plaque say, why does everyone in this town seem to (fill in the blank)? What did that lady sitting next to you in the park just say, or what might she have said to you if you weren’t plugged into another world?
I’m not going to tell you how much easier it was to immerse oneself in a foreign culture back in the day when I was first exploring the world. But–at the risk of sounding VERY baby-boomer retro–I am going to say that if you millennials don’t put some of your electronic gadgets away for at least part of the time when you’re on study abroad, you simply aren’t going to get your money’s worth out of the experience.
2. Listen with an open mind, and try to understand points of view that may be drastically different than your own.
American students abroad for the first time are often confronted with some pretty difficult questions and provocative assumptions, even some inaccurate and unfair stereotyping, as they begin to experience the world outside of America and find out firsthand how America is seen in other parts of the world, for better or worse.
If you can bite your tongue, suppress your automatic responses, and listen—really listen—to some of the challenging questions, hard truths, and even false accusations you’ll hear; and if you can allow the questions and comments of others to help you expand and alter your view of the world, and of America’s place in the world instead of closing it down, you will be opening yourself up to learning some of the most important things you can learn through study abroad. (You’ll probably be much more effective in explaining the other side of the story, too, if you take the time to think about what you’ve heard, and how best to respond before responding.)
You may need to think about some of the things you hear for a long, long time (maybe even a lifetime). That’s okay. The United States is a big country: it’s rich, complex and full of contradictions. Our history is complicated, a maddening mix of good and bad, with a lot of indifferent thrown in as well. There are no easy, simple truths about life in America or about life anywhere else on the planet for that matter. But the first step toward greater understanding among people is to listen respectfully to each other, even (maybe even especially) when we hate to hear what the other person is saying; and to care less about being “right” and more about being understanding, and understood.
3. Banish boredom or jadedness. When you feel boredom threatening, counter it with curiosity, the best defense.
Please note that boredom can make sneak attacks: when you find yourself turning to video games, the Internet, and other forms of seeking to ignore local culture and replace it with imported American culture, you are probably succumbing to boredom. Don’t let this happen to you.
What haven’t I seen here yet? What haven’t I done? What questions have I not asked? Why do I think that having been to a museum/church/whatever once means that I have exhausted its capacity to teach me something new, important, interesting? What could I be reading or doing that would help me dig deeper into this place and learn more about its history, its culture, its people? What could I do to more deeply experience this place myself and also share what I’ve learned with others?
Once you make curious exploration of the world your habit, you will never be bored. There is so much to learn anywhere you go and the longest lifetime is pitifully short in comparison to all we could potentially see and do. (Interestingly enough, the same holds true of life in your home town, wherever that is. Yes, wherever.)
Still, the study abroad experience tends to be an intense one, and you have to pace yourself. When you need to back off from all the new stimuli, go ahead and give yourself a break. Write an e-mail to a friend, chill out in your room, read something having nothing to do with where you are if that makes you feel better and more comfortable, or if it gives you a chance to recharge and gather up new energy for the road ahead.
Just don’t stay there. You’ve come halfway around the world to see something new. See it! Live it! Experience it as fully as you can. Use boredom the best way it can be used, to goad you into finding something new and interesting to do, to experience life at a deeper level than the one you were at just before you got bored.
4. Try to learn the languages of the places you visit.
Even rudimentary attempts will open up local culture, provide opportunities for positive interaction with local people, and automatically make the place more interesting. (If you do this, you will never have to worry about being bored. Ever!)
5. Bring home whatever you’ve learned, and share it with others.
This can be a bit tricky. Sometimes friends and families aren’t as eager to listen to travelers’ tales as travelers are to tell them.
It’s important to find a balance. Realize that it is probably pretty difficult for your friends and family to realize how much you’ve changed in a relatively short period of time. How could they know? They weren’t there with you, and while you were gone from home, life was going on pretty much the same as always for them.
Find a way to protect the new you from those who don’t want to or can’t really understand, or don’t appreciate it; and to share it with those who can. You’ve gone to a lot of trouble to make yourself a deeper, richer, wiser citizen of the world. You’ve probably found strengths you didn’t know you had and possibly some really great new interests too. Hold on tight to the strides forward you’ve made in your own personal development, and don’t let anyone take that away from you.
But do be willing to reach out a hand and encourage your friends, your family to join with you as you continue to make your world a bigger, better place than it was before you left home.
As Isabel, the protagonist in Diane Johnson’s novel, Le Divorce says, “Isn’t that the purpose of young Americans going abroad? To think of things they never thought of?”
That is the greatest treasure that comes with study abroad. Don’t be selfish. Share the wealth!
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor and teacher of writing and literature based in Silver Spring, Maryland. She teaches literature courses in Paris and Hawaii for the Education Abroad program at Queens College, CUNY, and twice a year she offers Writing from the Heart workshops in a beautiful little village in the Champagne region of France.