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Defending Study Abroad

Study abroad has traditionally been marginalized by many in academia, where it is often viewed as time away from “real” learning, a semester “off.” Programs in Latin America in particular carry images (and sometimes deliver the reality) of students frolicking in lands of tequila and sunshine, rum and rainforests, natives and salsa music.

Study abroad can also be effectively portrayed as a form of colonialism, the new El Dorado of academia, in which study abroad programs south of the border represent modern conquistadors. In this view, study abroad provides the raw minerals and cash crops for today’s resumes.

Theoretical deconstructions of the field criticize study abroad as a medium through which students of privilege further their own skills by learning among “hosts” who do not share their resulting increased access to powerful jobs in the new global economy. While it is easy and not altogether incorrect to view study abroad as another neocolonial project in Latin America, this would seem to encourage the even less desirable alternative of encouraging students to stay home, not interact across cultural boundaries, and not study Spanish.

Attacking study abroad as neocolonialist, while perhaps theoretically or politically appealing, is hardly a way to promote the improvement of social conditions, not to mention improvements of practices in the field.

Can international educators take control of negative stereotypes and a history of exploitative relationships to resist both the negative image of international education in the U.S. and as an intercultural project in Latin America? We can indeed use critiques of the field to resist reconfirming and perpetuating negative labels and thereby come closer to reaching our potential as part of a serious, transformative educational process.

Resist Ignorance about History

Rather than accepting the stereotypical images of both Latin Americans and Anglos we should ask: How can we better understand U.S.-Latin American relationships? How have the stereotypes been constructed and for whose benefit? How are these stereotypes added to or altered as Latin American countries become increasingly enmeshed in a complex process of cultural and economic globalization where “contact” now takes new and unusual shapes?

The challenge is obviously greatest for those countries where little has been written about cross-cultural conflicts. Articles and books about U.S.-Mexico relations abound, but we also need to understand how images like the “easy gringa” image emerged and function in Peru and the “Latin lover” in Costa Rica. Why are Americans perceived as cold and unfeeling in Venezuela, and how is their desire to engage in volunteer service read in Chile? How do such things as the media, tourism, U.S. foreign policy, and immigration issues figure into these constructions?

Programs in Latin America need to gather specific local information that can then be related to larger global processes to help students (and programs) understand how they are being perceived and interpreted. Before we can own the images made of our students and our work, we need to know how our presence has been historically constructed.

As mediators in this bringing together of two cultures we have a responsibility to guide these encounters in positive directions. First of all, we can help them resist becoming stereotypes by understanding our students better: What are their needs and desires and how might these inadvertently lead them to fulfil stereotypical roles? How do their expectations shape the ways in which they approach interactions with members of host cultures? We cannot enlist students in some sort of project for social and global change if we do not consider who they are and within what cultural terms they have formed their views and desires.

Second, we can also share with our students local constructions of knowledge about Americans and the role of race, gender, and class in these constructions.

Finally, we must find ways to resist tacitly approving the entrenchment of stereotypes. While this should not involve an attempt to micro-manage our students’ lives, we need to find ways to create environments that promote deeper discussions and equal and more authentic relationships. By sharing local constructions of stereotypes with students, by understanding their shared culture and the distinct nature of their individual experiences, and through a more careful and dialogue-based facilitation of their encounters with host-culture members we can do much to improve the quality of these experiences.

Resist Teaching Stereotypes

The global context and its power relationships underlies the material we teach, whether texts, contacts with specific individuals, or visits to museums or small-town celebrations. If we simply choose elements that unquestioningly celebrate tradition and local identity, werisk projecting a romanticized and simplified view of other cultures. On the other hand, to embrace the negative “givens” of poverty and underdevelopment as organizing principles for curriculums is inherently more critical than the less problem-oriented approach. Both options reinforce old dichotomies of first world/third world, modern/traditional, developed/underdeveloped, familiar/exotic when they do not address the interconnectedness of “our” and “their” society within individual countries.

Programs can resist inadvertently reconfirming stereotypical images by avoiding delivering “packaged” visions of what a country’s reality is like, by creating more diverse and complex curriculums, and by engaging students in discussions about how these seemingly disparate elements emerged and now “fit together.” By being less concerned about giving students a clear answer to the question of what a country is about we help them resist jumping to quick and superficial judgments.

Indeed, the best thing might be to have students conclude that it is hard to generalize about the place they have been and that they have witnessed many different sorts of lives and conditions during a semester abroad. This clearly would be better than to have them leave smugly convinced that they have “mastered” a particular place

Resist Silencing Our Hosts

We also need to consider what role our hosts play in all this and begin to see them as one of the key stakeholders in this endeavor. What do they see as important for students to learn about their cultures? What do we do if the “must-see, must-do” list of our students does not match theirs? What does this mean? How do students impact individuals, families, and communities? What lingers after they have returned home, and how do families manage this post-semester transition?

We need to seek out more local voices in an attempt to make our hosts actors and subjects in this process rather than objects of study or, even worse, simply logistical means or scenery. This may mean more and deeper contact with host families and others involved in our programs’ daily functioning and point to a need for more evaluations, focus groups, meetings, observations, and other participatory tools. In short, we must search out and show that we valorize local opinions and concerns.

Resist One-Way Exploitative Encounters

Study abroad in Latin America must be more than an opportunity for resume enhancement. Personal gains in skill development must be seen by students as a way to connect the personal to the social, to move from enriching one’s own life to acting for broader social change. In order to achieve this, we must help students reflect upon their own interactions and insights, question their knowledge critically, and engage in new, diverse forms of reciprocity and action. We also need to pose questions about what comes next—how will this experience change the way they vote, work, relate to others, teach their children, consume and produce?

Most of the concern with re-entry has focused on working with students once they have returned to the States. The study abroad experience, to be useful, must be one in which students are continually articulating their experiences with their non-abroad lives, questioning for themselves study abroad’s larger meaning.

By bringing students into discussions about privilege, social responsibility, inequalities, and reciprocity we invite them to share our concerns about the field itself and to work with us to transform what these experiences mean and lead to.

By engaging in some healthy introspection, forging new alliances with our hosts, and inviting our students into these discussions we can resist the tequila/salsa images that plague us and also improve our practice to better reflect, include, and promote those we work with in Latin America. Only then can we confidently assert that we are helping to bring the world closer together, break down stereotypes, and foster positive social change.

KAREN RODRÍGUEZ is the Director of Pitzer College’s Program in Venezuela.

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