Being elsewhere: why is it beneficial to do a semester abroad?

Musing on the importance of studying abroad

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Illustration of a globe
Illustration: Gabrielle Wolf

One evening, the surprising heat of a Parisian summer kept me awake. I rolled over, searching for any corner of a cool sheet, but the bustling sound of the city at play cemented the fate of my night’s sleep. It was a nice night for a walk anyway.

I thought about when I first came to France, sure that it would never feel like home. As if home is the sort of high distinction that can only be bestowed upon one place. The US is where I grew up, and it always seemed to be my inevitable home. There is a lot of debate over studying abroad. Is it worth your time? Is it an elitist venture? Is it really just an excuse to embark on a six-month drunken escapade?

Some, including Curtis Chin, former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, think that studying abroad is far from essential. He questions the value for the money spent. Many agree that while it may look nice on a resume in theory, in practice, studying abroad is a waste of time or a thinly veiled vacation for unmotivated – and privileged – college students.

Programs that send a pack of 20 students and a professor usually precludes those students from engaging with the local culture and population. The courses can be unstructured and considered void of academic rigor. There always seems to be someone who has one hour of “history of macaroni” or the “logistics of boiling pasta” a week and spends the rest of the time flitting around Italy.

I would have to agree that it would be hard to disprove Chin’s point that certain study abroad programs place a soft emphasis on the “study” part. It is possible, however, that this is irrelevant. I would argue that, as with most things in life, the true lessons are learned outside of the classroom. As someone who has studied abroad, it was quickly apparent that the most important education comes from simply living abroad. Life is the key lesson.

The first lesson usually starts in your very own room, realising how much stuff you have. You’ve dragged that large suitcase in front of you and you need to decide how to pack your life in under 23 kilos. Do I need all this stuff? (Probably not.) Material possessions are a often a comfort, though, and deciding what is essential is already an exercise in self-exploration. Once you reach your destination, you’ll meet people who profoundly challenge your preconceptions. I remember meeting an Egyptian family who was temporarily relocated to Paris after the shut down of the “Calais Jungle” – a refugee and migrant camp for those seeking refuge on British soil.

When I listened to their story, the decisions they had to make, the risks they took for a gamble at a more secure life, I understood the importance of evaluating my biases. To combat ignorance, I had to dismantle years of cultural misgivings and simply listen. There will be waves as you challenge these conceptions that have remained comfortably unchallenged for many years.

At first, you’ll feel like the place you’re from is the worst. As an American, I saw how controversial debates in the US have been settled in France for years. In France, you can walk into any pharmacy and get the morning after pill for less than four euros. If you’re under 18, it’s free, no questions asked. In the US, the pill would cost you anywhere between $20-50. Hardly anyone here thinks that a citizen would need a semi-automatic rifle, and were appalled at our rate of gun-related violence. On several occasions, I was called upon to explain our gun laws, only to be met with with unconvinced frowns. The list goes on. Let us also not neglect the three extra years of drinking legally.

You will also, however, learn to love the place you’re from. A lot of people come abroad running away from something. There is nothing like separating yourself from all that you know to realise how much home has made you who you are, and, ultimately, how inseparable you are from the culture that has shaped you. There were certain things I missed, ranging from the trivial to the paramount: from always having large glasses of water at restaurants to the strength of the First Amendment. I saw the flaws in healthcare. I saw the problems surrounding racism and sexism. I also saw the Black Lives Matter movement, the Women’s March, and the conversations around sexual harassment. These are possibilities in my home country that I no longer take for granted.

Even here, the comparison between home and elsewhere is beside the point. Most importantly, you learn about moderation and the complexity of the human experience. There is not one right way to live and see the world. I learned that not everyone wants to be American. I learned to appreciate my country while eradicating any sort of blind and ultimately undeserved veneration.

Home is amazing, but not better than elsewhere. Going abroad pops, shatters, implodes and eviscerates your bubble, and nothing is better for you or the world.

As the sun eventually came up as I walked back to my apartment, I thought about how Paris had become home too. How I had the luxury of being able to contemplate as I walk because my feet knew where to take me. How a city once filled with strangers had become a place of security. I didn’t want to go back to the US just yet. I wanted to keep exploring, and Scotland was next.

If you’re a full-time student at St Andrews, you’ll have undoubtedly noticed the influx of visiting students every semester.

St Andrews has the particularity of being a very international school, with almost half of its student body originating from outside the United Kingdom. 30 per cent are American, and many Americans (like myself) chose to study abroad in Scotland. Some don’t get the hype; it’s rainy, it’s wet, it’s not London, etc. Mostly, it seems to not count because it is an English speaking country. Again, beside the point. Studying abroad has little to do with the destination. It’s the action, the going, the becoming, that is vital. Go elsewhere.

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