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Foreign Awakening

The Lasting Benefits of Study Abroad

Big Ben
As part of her study abroad experience, the author made the most of traveling outside the U.S. for her first time. From her home-base of London, she visited several European countries While in London, Lauren poses for a photograph in front of Big Ben.

“Cultural History of the U.S.,” “The American Presidency,” “U.S. Health and Welfare Policy….” All these classes would have captured my interest a year ago, but this time around during course registration I find myself searching through the extensive lists for something different than what I have been taught for the past 17 years as a student. Now, selections like “European Union: Social and Political,” “East Asian Studies,” and “Globalization and International Affairs” all sound more intriguing. I credit my semester abroad with enhancing my interest in the world around me and my desire to understand America in a more broad perspective.

Most of us grow up in the American public school system where we learn math, science, social studies, and American history. Most of our parents have never ventured outside of the States, and our families have been here for generations. We watch American films, listen to American music, and read American novels. Knowledge of the outside world lies in history books, not contemporary works, and it is portrayed in films through the eyes of American producers. We are raised in an egocentric society that rarely dares to venture past its borders. Luckily, unlike the average American, I broke out of the bubble. I “jumped the pond,” as they say, and landed in London for a 3-month stay that would change me in many ways.

Students were told during our predeparture orientation that there would be culture shock when we arrived in our new countries. I figured the kids going to Spain, Italy, Ghana, or China would have to deal with it, but not me. I did not think I would experience any major culture shock in the cosmopolitan city of London, where the population majority speaks English and supports a democratic government. Soon after arriving in the city, I realized I was wrong to assume this. As I look back, I am glad I was mistaken.

It took me about two weeks to settle into my new surroundings and get past the homesickness. After a few breakdowns and moments of complete helplessness, I finally realized that things were not drastically different in London. Sometimes though, it’s the insignificant factors that pile up and make all the difference. The smallest things seemed so foreign and odd to me: seeing pound signs instead of dollars, not knowing which brand of cereal or toothpaste to buy, and trying to remember to look left instead of right when I crossed a street.

There were moments that I would have boarded a plane back to Boston if the option had been there. I felt disconnected from everyone without a phone or Internet connection and helpless like a child trying to learn everything for the first time. I soon realized this sense of insecurity and helplessness was just the beginning of my education.

Traveling became the most exciting part of my whole experience. I found myself visiting new places almost every weekend. Within three months, I had ventured to Scotland, Ireland, Spain, France, Greece, Italy, and Germany. In all these places, I experienced both enjoyable and frustrating situations, but each was equally rewarding in the long run.

Aegina Island, Greece
Visiting markets such as this temporary food market set on the docks on Aegina Island, Greece is an ideal way to immerse oneself in the local culture.

It is funny what moments stick in one’s memory; those that do often point to your greatest moments of realization. I remember running late for the train from Rome to Venice. I had decided to stop quickly in the grocery store to grab some apples for the long trip. At the register, the cashier looked at me with confusion saying, “quanto costa?” I knew what she was asking, but was confused why a cashier would ask me how much a product in her store cost. “No parle Italiano,” I replied. She followed with fast banter in her foreign tongue while pointing at the produce section as I looked at her in bewilderment and felt my heart pump with nervous tension. I looked around me asking and hoping for someone who spoke English. Finally, a woman behind me grabbed my bag of apples, ran back into the produce section then returned them labeled with weight and price. “Gratsi!” I said. I returned to my friends in a panic, apples in hand, and described to them what I came to realize as my first true run-in with a language barrier.

The experience was more than a language barrier; it was an encounter with a simple, yet significant clash in cultures. As upset as I was over the whole situation, I thought to myself how much more efficient the Italian system of weighing produce beforehand is. I would have never thought to do it that way, but it makes complete sense. I suddenly realized that there are other ways of life beyond those I was raised knowing. Some I found better, others worse. Either way, whether I liked it or not, I was forced to understand and live life out of my element.

A gondola ride reveals a canal-side neighborhood in the heart of Venice.

I soon became more aware of my surroundings and tried to observe more differences in lifestyles. In England, they barely use ice in drinks…not so refreshing. In Ireland, people will sit down next to strangers and strike up conversations…a charming sight. In Spain, business shuts down for afternoon siesta; later Spaniards stay out until all hours of the night partying…what a novel idea! In Venice, you either walk or travel by boat to your next destination…how romantic. In France, to-go cups of coffee are sinful, a scary thought for an on-the-run American.

Blarney Castle
In Ireland, the author toured Blarney Castle, which was built nearly 600 years ago by one of Ireland’s greatest chieftains.

When you grow up in one place your whole life it is easy to only learn one way to live. A person may not be ignorant in believing their way is superior to others but they are still naïve because they have never been exposed to new possibilities. Studying abroad opens up the world beyond the 50 states and expands it to 193 countries. It allows you to understand others and yourself better. Americans especially suffer from a naïve, egocentric worldview. Our country is so large that it is easy never to leave within a lifetime. Only about 20 to 25 percent of Americans even own a passport. Although American mobility is great, it is within a limited cultural base. Our country is so large that we are seldom forced to look beyond it, leaving us in the dust when it comes to world politics and international affairs.

During my time in London I observed how politically informed Europeans are. My astonishment of their worldly knowledge was explained to me by an Irish friend. He explained that his country is so small if a newscast were only to cover Ireland, it would last three minutes. He pointed out how my country by contrast is so massive that there is enough news to cover a whole newscast and fill the bulk of a newspaper. His point is valid but should not remain an excuse for our ignorance of world affairs. Americans should seek out alternative information sources and strive to learn about others.

My participation in study abroad has made me aware of many things including my naïveté. My eyes have been opened and I will continue my education with a more open mind. I strive to take all angles into consideration and to follow my European friends’ example by keeping myself better informed and fulfilling my responsibility not only as an American citizen but also as a world citizen. I am glad study abroad is becoming more popular in America. I encourage everyone to take advantage of the opportunity to live within and better understand a foreign land because there is so much we have to learn from the world around us. Standing on the Acropolis looking over the modern version of the most ancient city in the world was no greater a learning experience than my confusion in an Italian grocery store. Moments like these should be experienced by all. Getting there may be hard, but as I learned in Ireland…“no rain, no rainbow.”

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