I have few regrets about my college experience so far. Almost six semesters in and I can honestly say I think I’ve, on the whole, made the right choices. That’s why it’s so painful for me to admit I was wrong about something and why it took me so long to write this piece. There’s something to be said for staying behind: fulfilling requirements is easier here, your friends are here, Boston is a great city and let’s be honest, travel is a colossal headache. Then why do I feel so unfulfilled in this choice to not study abroad?
First of all, I get to hear all about how wonderful my friends’ experiences were. Complete with pictures. On a related note, several of our abroad bloggers here at the Gavel make a concerted effort to put readers inside their cross-cultural experiences, paradoxically reminding them of all the cool stuff they’re not doing.
Seriously, you read their abroad blogs, and you become that much more aware you’re stuck sitting in front of a computer screen. Thanks guys. Really.
Second, and much more importantly, I feel I passed up on a key opportunity to grow as a person. And I hate that phrase: “grow as a person.” It’s a horrible cliché. I know that, and I hesitate to put it in writing. But in this case, I honestly think it’s true.
I recently told Professor Thomas Epstein my reason for not going abroad; I told him that I had been afraid. And he replied, “That’s exactly the reason you should have done it.” I skipped out on going abroad because I was afraid, and not rationally afraid.
I’d drawn boundaries for myself; to use another cliché, I established a “comfort zone,” and decided travel, especially outside America, was outside that comfort zone. Sometimes you’re forced outside your comfort zone whether you like it or not, and that the wider you draw your boundaries, the better off you’ll be in the long run.
Third, Americans are often stereotyped as “ignorant.” I’m not supporting this assertion; in fact, it annoys me. But I don’t think we can become fully aware of our American-ness without exploring another culture as a point of reference. Things we take for granted are done very differently elsewhere.
Even now, I read that last comment back to myself and see a platitude; superficially, I’m aware how different other cultures are from ours, but in practice, I fumble for specific examples of these differences and I certainly couldn’t tell you why they’re important. I don’t know that going abroad would answer these difficult questions; in fact, I’m fairly certain it would not. But, if nothing else, it’s in the spirit of education, and a more sincere attempt at learning than, say, simply reading about other cultures on the internet.
Fourth—and this is probably what bothers me the most—I missed this opportunity mostly out of laziness. Yes, I was afraid, but the moment to face that fear passed me by when I wasn’t paying attention. The time to apply to study abroad seemed distant to me when I was a freshman, and I didn’t really start paying attention until it was too late.
Well, “too late.” My faculty advisers were fond of telling me it was “too late,” but to tell you the truth, I suspect they were just trying to keep things simple. After all, studying abroad complicates things—which requirements can you fulfill abroad, how does studying abroad fulfill your long term career goals, etcetera—but that’s no excuse not to try. If you’re a freshman or sophomore and you’re talking this decision over with your advisers, make sure that they understand you’re serious and that you sincerely want to go abroad.
My advice to younger students? Don’t wait around for study abroad opportunities to present themselves. You need to be proactive. I’m not saying your faculty advisers are a bad resource, or that they don’t have your best interests at heart, but you need to take the initiative yourself. Visit the Office of International Affairs. Go to study abroad fairs.
Most students will take a foreign language over the course of your first two years here—talk to professors of foreign language about the kinds of opportunities their department might have to offer you. You should actually read all of those seemingly useless study abroad related emails instead of just ignoring or deleting them out of force of habit. Perhaps most importantly, talk to students who’ve already studied abroad—they’re probably the best resource for getting started, having already gone through the process.
The good news for me and upperclassmen like me? Summer abroad programs. They may not be as immersive as full semesters abroad, and they certainly won’t substitute for a semester’s worth of work. But they’re there for those of us who want to pursue them. As of this writing, I’m going abroad to Ireland in the summer for Prof. Joseph Nugent’s “Joyce in Dublin” course.
Many people go abroad because they’re attracted to the easier workload, or because they feel very strongly about a particular country. For me, those are secondary concerns. I honestly believe stepping outside your own culture, insofar as that’s actually possible, is key to your intellectual and emotional development.