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Studying Abroad: A New Perspective

"A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.”  - Oliver Wendell Holmes

 On our quest for knowledge we seek out new experiences where we are surrounded by new people and new ideas. Some of us even travel across the globe in the pursuit of it. For college students it is a highly encouraged— and advertised—possibility. In an effort to persuade students to travel, study abroad websites often include a list of reasons why college students should travel. Chief among them are often things like “See the World” and “Experience a New Culture,” indicating the importance of exploring the beautiful world we share and learning from others, not just to expand our educational résumé, but to inform our self-perceptions and enhance our understanding of what makes life worthwhile. The ultimate goal of studying abroad is for students to return home as well-educated, mature, informed global citizens, who can share their experience with those who haven’t traveled yet.

“Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.”                                                            Ibn Battuta

I find it strange that our intense curiosity about studying abroad tends to make returning students into embodied members of another culture who occupy two liminal spaces within society—one where they are not fully adult nor fully “other.” We expect them to come back with grand stories and a synopsis of their deeply personal adventures so that we might learn something new about a “desirable” country or confirm the negative assumptions we have about “troubled” countries. This transition from homeland student to worldly storyteller is facilitated by the use of technology to document the students’ time abroad. Personal media such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram all serve as conduits for global storytelling that reach beyond that of typical face-to-face cultural transmission, which usually takes the form of souvenirs and gifts. Many of the study abroad programs I looked into required students to maintain a blog or submit a reflection on their sponsor’s website so that their experience can inspire others to travel, thus students serve as both walking advertisements and technological testaments to the power of exploration and open-mindedness. Here we see students become the vehicle for globalization—transmitting cultural ideas, values, and traditions via their storytelling, giving us at home a glimpse into another culture without ever crossing the dateline.

               “The more I traveled the more I realized that fear makes strangers                                       of people who should be friends.” – Shirley MacLaine

And then I wondered: why is it that we accept the free flow of college students on their quest for knowledge but heed the influx of immigrants seeking new and safer life experiences, to share in our culture and start anew? Is it because their quest for knowledge is tangible and clearly deciphered—evidenced by Student Visas rather than Work Visas, textbooks instead of tools, youth instead of age? What is so different about the two groups that causes encouraged exploration to become a worrying infiltration? Maybe it is the unspoken misconception that learning ends after school and that these types of “soul searching” adventures are only relevant within the immediate liminal phase of post-high school life—something that must be done “while you’re young.” Or perhaps we have allowed mainstream media forms such as the Daily Mail and Fox News, with their dramatized fear mongering, to inform our opinions about which parts of the world are safe and valuable and, consequently, which groups of people are acceptable travelers. Luckily the internet houses alternate viewpoints rooted in actual experience, whereby study abroad students, intentionally or otherwise, defend the act of traveling and the countries they have visited and prove that there are two sides to every story. The open expression of nervousness, excitement, and clarity from these students’ perspectives allow others to rid themselves of the fear of the unknown: both logistically and politically. As someone who missed their chance to study abroad and hopes to travel where the wind takes me, for however long or however far, I like to imagine a world where the free flow of people is normalized and our nomadic ancestry embraced.

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