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The Carletonian

Interrogating the idea of “studying abroad”

< do you imagine writing a Carletonian article responding to the prompt “How did your self-perception change while studying abroad?” Who exactly do you picture taking the time out of their schedule to tell us, the audience, about their life changing ten week trip to some country in the [insert developed or developing here] world? You probably think of an American, college age: like us, middle class, white, probably a guy, could be a girl. But you do think of an American, don’t you? Or, you think of some other white person, in some other developed country, that has similar cultural norms about studying abroad. The common denominator here, however, is that you have an image in your mind, of a specific kind of person that goes on study abroad programs with a specific purpose: to travel, to interact with others, and to learn about themselves and about the rest world.

Now pause, let’s for a second interrogate the assumptions about race, gender and class that we unconsciously make when we ask or answer a question such as: “How did your self-perception change while studying abroad?” Do we assume the existence of a dominant narrative here? Are we more likely to think of someone like Josh spending six weeks in Amsterdam and four weeks in Germany, or someone like Jessica backpacking for a semester throughout Asia? Do we assume that studying abroad is done primarily by the relatively wealthy, the cis-gender, the light skinned? Do we forget about the fact that certain people are more likely to be well received in foreign spaces than others? At least some of us do, and when we do so we set the stage for disregarding the experiences of those who don’t fit inside this little box we’ve unconsciously constructed.

Now, let me make it clear that I am not making an argument here against studying abroad– the point I’m trying to make is more subtle. Without a doubt, going somewhere new and being forced to figure out your positionality in a wholly unfamiliar space is a wonderful experience. As someone who comes from a completely different society, from Puerto Rico, I know exactly what it feels like to have my cultural horizons expanded — to realize, for the first time, that there’s a lot more to the world than the little bubble I saw growing up. I think it’s fair to say that others who come to study or live in other places probably go through a similar sort of process of acclimation, adaptation, and personal growth. That said, we need to always think about the assumptions that underlie the language that we use and the way that we let our experiences influence the way that we see ourselves as well as the world.

When we implicitly construct a master narrative of “self-discovery” by taking a while to include, or not at all including, those whose stories deviate from the understanding of study abroad as a sort of extended tourism, we end up overlooking something. We neglect the fact that  in a multi-pronged manner this monochromatic understanding of studying outside of one’s country is a little egocentric and somewhat colonial.  First, it neglects the fact the acclimation component of self-discovery can be a painful process, and that some people, the darker skinned, the non cis-gender, for example, may not be quite as well received in foreign spaces as the Joshs and Jessicas of the world. My own narrative, for example, was one that included the discovery of my status as a colonial subject of these United States of America. I felt the ground that underpinned the way that I understood myself, my people, and the experiences that I had while growing up, experience a tectonic shift. This was a life-changing experience, but it was also one that was fraught with pain. Imagine how you would feel if you realized that you inherited one of your two languages because of colonialism? If suddenly, you became aware of the fact the vast majority of the problems people face where you’re from–crime, poverty, unemployment, a lack of opportunities– are the direct result of over 100 years of exploitation and oppression? You wouldn’t feel good. You probably wouldn’t want to share that experience with everyone.

Second, when we fail to think of studying abroad beyond the time-frame of ten weeks, beyond the notion of going back home and sharing all of our wonderful stories with all of our wonderful friends, we can become the victims of a colonialist mentality that views parts of the world as being there solely for us to visit. In doing so, we might forget that studying abroad is really supposed to be about cultivating an interest in other parts of the world, about becoming more cosmopolitan. As a consequence, we become prone to neglecting the fact that a lot of people spend their entire lives in others’ “study abroad” destinations. Destinations like Jordan, India, or Mexico that tend to be poorer in terms of material and epistemological wealth: places where people, diploma in hand or not, have to find a job in order to survive and where sadly there aren’t a lot of high paying jobs available.

Last, when we fail to stop and think about how crossing social, cultural, and economic borders can make us feel like outsiders in once familiar spaces we end up handcuffing our capacity for personal growth. As a student who comes to the US from different country, I’ve come to realize that there’s more than one way to feel homeless: that moving around requires a certain sense of detachment from one’s immediate environment.  I have, however,  also learned to grow comfortable with this sense of societal and cultural homelessness: of always feeling like I belong somewhere else. And isn’t that really one of the main things that studying abroad is supposed to teach us? The reality that identity is fluid; that life nowadays requires the straddling of internal and external borders: that we’re all living at the intersection of history where more societies and cultures are coming together than ever before.

Studying abroad is great: travelling around the world, meeting other people, and having our minds opened to alternative ways of living is a truly wonderful opportunity that many people are never able to have. It’s a privilege. So, maybe we should do a better job of acknowledging that. Instead of phrasing the question as: “How did your self-perception change while studying abroad?” maybe we should ask: “How has studying abroad made me better able to understand others?” so that we can in turn use our experiences to make the world better.

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