“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.” – Maya Angelou
Since I started college I have heard so many of my friends and peers debating whether or not to study abroad. Do I have time in my schedule? What will I miss at my school in a semester? Is it worth it? These are the questions that usually come up. Obviously, the answer to the first two is personal, and I cannot answer it for anyone but myself. Equally obvious is how easy it is for a language dork such as myself to justify studying outside of America for a time. Regardless of these two caveats, having gone through the experience I have some insight into that final question: as to whether or not study abroad is worth it the answer is an unequivocal and unqualified yes. As far as I am concerned there can be no exception to this rule. I know there are some genuine and justifiable reasons why an individual might choose not to study abroad, but if it is an option for you personally, please do study abroad. Study abroad absolutely anywhere and for at least a semester. I cannot imagine that you will regret it.
Having spent a bit of time to reflect on my experience (not a lot, mind you, plenty of reflecting yet to be done) I can offer my take on what I got from my own study abroad experience. There were some really specific things I got out of it that cannot be applied as general advice to any student who might be considering study abroad. For example, I needed to intensively work on Arabic, so I chose a language pledge Arabic program. I also wanted specifically to get to know the Middle East on a personal level (we are on a nickname basis now, Alexandria is her formal name, but she goes by Alex). Neither of these things are true of many people.
These two aspects were central and critical to my own study abroad experience, but there are general gains to be made by any American student studying abroad in Egypt, New Zealand, France, Italy, or wherever the wind may blow them, and this is perhaps the most beneficial aspect of study abroad. I cannot speak for everyone’s life path of course, but you may never have a logistically simpler way to settle in for several months into a completely different country, and having gone through this now I firmly believe it is an experience everyone of our generation should try to take advantage of, but not exactly for the reasons people emphasize.
A lot of times people try to sell study abroad as if it is a sort of extended vacation with some classes thrown in to justify your time. When done right that is exactly what it is not. I am on a vacation right now, and an amazing one where I am seeing a lot of incredible European cities that are all brand shiny new to me. We are in each place for a few days—just enough time to see the sights, eat the food, and travel to the next place. There is definitely something to be said for this type of travel—it exposes you to the world’s diversity and allows you to soak in some history. I believe any kind of travel is genuinely enriching, and I absolutely encourage it, but it cannot replace the experience of settling in. On this kind of trip you end up hopping from place to place noticing how different every city is from where you live, or perhaps how different they are from each other—but in any case the point of pure travel is seeking and appreciating difference.
Study abroad—and by this I mean for at least a semester as it really does take that long to be able to reach this point—but study abroad is about seeking and appreciating the ways in which people and places are the same, and now as any other time, that is an incredibly important lesson to learn. We have heard it constantly stashed into neat little slogans since kindergarten, but seeing this lesson come together in an environment that had originally shocked you as incredibly foreign and different is the only way I have yet experienced to truly comprehend it. Of course this goes in stages, and honestly you may not feel it until your time is done, but the lesson will seep in if you have taken the time to truly engage with your host country.
Fresh off the plane, more than likely you will see the differences everywhere. People are speaking in a completely different language (maybe some more rapid version of one you have been studying in a textbook or maybe one you are wholly unfamiliar with), people dress slightly differently and have different ideas of what to do with their hair, people use different hand gestures or they use the same ones to mean something completely different, the architecture looks different, the city looks older, take your pick. All of these things will stand out to you on your first day, and many of them will continue to surprise, delight and frustrate you for the next few weeks or possibly months. But every day your new city will hold a few less surprises and a few more familiar faces. Every day that gibberish the people on the streets seem to be able to communicate in will be that much more comprehensible. And this is when you slowly start to realize that people everywhere are just people, with the same motivations, the same worries, and the same dreams. They go about it a different way because they grew up in a different corner of the world, and so often we allow that simple fact to obscure the great many things we share. People love to love and be loved. People will do so much to support and protect their families—in whatever form these families may come. People like to find an order and an explanation for the world around them. People plan for the future. People set goals for themselves. People enjoy making connections. People do what they need to do to get by. People live by a set of values they believe in as much as they are able to—sometimes tied to religion, sometimes of their own devising. People make mistakes. None of these things are limited by nationality. The story will be the same anywhere you go.
You can sit next to your teacher’s poster stating “Appreciate our similarities, celebrate our differences” every day for a year, and you still won’t appreciate just what it means until you have seen the foreign melt into the human before your own eyes. I saw it in Egypt, and I assure you Egypt looks and feels foreign to an American arriving there. By the time my mom was visiting me at the end of the semester, I had suddenly seemed to forget so many of the less glaring ways Egypt was different to me when I first arrived, and seeing her discover Egypt in a week demonstrated to me the difference between travel and study abroad. To be clear, “people are people everywhere you go” is not an insight or a thought that is new to me. I, like most people, have never consciously thought anything else. But the thing is, this lesson is too important to leave to chance, and one must be absolutely certain that there is not the tiniest speck of doubt in one’s subconscious that people of X, Y or Z country that is in whatever type of conflict with A, B or C other country are in fact people. All of the most terrifying events in human history, where people have acted in unimaginably cruel ways toward their fellow human beings have come as a result to at least some extent of dehumanization. People on one side of a conflict somehow managed to convince themselves that people on the other side were less human than they were, and that they had nothing in common with them. Apparently it is a surprisingly and horrifyingly easy belief to shed. I am hopeful that a future world in which more people have had the chance to settle in and get to know people of a different land on a personal level will be a world in which this belief is harder to shake for whatever political ends may be at hand. That sounds like a really lofty statement when what I am basically saying is that you personally should study abroad for a semester—but I think the point I am trying to make is that the more people this world has who have who studied abroad, the more people it has who know in the deepest corners of their mind that people are people, and surely that is the world we all want to live in.
So this generic letter is just one more way of saying thank you to everyone who made this semester possible for me. Thank you and all of the love in my heart.