I recently read an excellent essay by Sanford J. Ungar. Published in Foreign Affairs, the piece explains why it's so important for Americans to study abroad. "The trouble is that relatively few Americans currently enjoy this kind of life-changing overseas experience," writes Ungar. He cites many reasons for this, including inflexible curriculum requirements at American institutions of higher learning and the extra costs that could come with such an endeavor. Another significant problem is "the lack of curricular and socioeconomic diversity among those who do go overseas." (The majority of students who study abroad are white and come from elite backgrounds.) Ungar notes that there have been some steps in the right direction. However, "efforts to increase the number of Americans studying abroad have been piecemeal and only partially successful."
The United States would undoubtedly benefit if more Americans were to study abroad. In an increasingly interconnected world, having a more nuanced understanding of world affairs (including language skills) will become ever more relevant. Yet, moving beyond issues of competition in the global marketplace, U.S. global leadership, and the strategic and national security implications associated with this idea, Ungar's thoughtful piece has reminded me of how important, how absolutely vital my study abroad experiences were in shaping my worldview and encouraging me to appreciate diverse perspectives and different customs.
During college, I was lucky. I got to study abroad on three occasions. I spent summers in Innsbruck, Austria and Buenos Aires, Argentina. I lived in Valencia, Spain for a semester. I travelled widely on all three occasions. Those moments abroad forced me out of my comfort zone and deepened my intellectual curiosity. I was challenged, not just to learn and appreciate what people from different countries and backgrounds think. I began to understand the importance of appreciating why people think the way that they do. I met numerous people who were passionate (and often not in a positive way) about U.S. foreign policy and other aspects of American culture.
In Argentina and Spain, I lived with host families; I remained an outsider, of course, but I also go a feel for what it's actually like to live in Buenos Aires and Valencia. I learned things that people staying in dormitories with other Americans probably wouldn't learn. I had conversations that people who don't study abroad probably cannot have.
For me, studying abroad was an educational gateway to a world that I wasn't sure even existed. It's one thing, for example, to read about Argentinean politics in The New York Times, it's quite another to be discussing it over a bottle of Malbec in the heart of Buenos Aires. It's one thing to learn about Spanish literature and culture in Athens, Georgia, it's quite another to be doing it over a three-hour lunch in a major city on Spain's eastern coast. Besides, having to defend one's ideas in a second language is usually a worthwhile experience.
At times stressful, other times exhilarating, those moments abroad were rarely (if ever) dull. I left college knowing that I was fortunate to have had the chance to go abroad. Having said that, many of my peers, who'd had similar upbringings to me, could have studied abroad, but chose not to; it didn't seem to interest them, though I suspect fear or anxiety may also have been factors.
From college I joined the Peace Corps and spent two years in an indigenous village in Guatemala. I then returned to Spain to teach English in Madrid. Human rights work in Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka came later. Even before high school, I was interested in international affairs. Nonetheless, it's hard to emphasize how helpful and important studying abroad has been, for helping to shape the way I see the world and for keeping me eager to learn more. In the coming years, I sincerely hope that more and more Americans will feel the same way.