The Ugly Truth of Studying Abroad

By Nichole Capizzi
January 29, 2013

For American students to be competitive in today’s globalized world, international experience is critically important,” Ann Stock, assistant secretary of State for educational and cultural affairs, said in a press release. “Young people who study abroad gain the global skills necessary to create solutions to 21st Century challenges.”

It’s true, Americans are studying abroad in record numbers and they are not going abroad for the degrees, they’re going abroad to enhance their degrees and to enhance what would be their assets to future employers.

Today, study abroad is a world-wide phenomenon. Its purpose is to provide students with real-world opportunities for educational and personal growth. With so many benefits, however, it is interesting to note the unique challenges a study abroad experience poses.

Many people see study abroad as a largely extraordinary opportunity, centered on language and cultural immersion. What people don’t see is that there is a “right” way to do it. The study abroad experience can be part of both the intellectual and personal development of a student, but also of his or her general understanding of how the world works. An international understanding comes only when the student feels disoriented. A true study abroad experience should make you think deeply about assumptions.

Many American universities have committed to international education by establishing overseas campuses. The problem is that overseas campuses don’t allow students to fully immerse themselves in another culture. Most students just go to Europe, study at American universities, hang out with American students in London, Rome, Madrid, Paris, stayed connected on Facebook and come back having had a “once-in-a-lifetime” experience, but not a radically rethought picture of the world. This is the “Americanized” way of studying abroad. Only practicing English with people from your own country will not help in the long term.

Another issue is foreign-language proficiency. What do you call someone who speaks two languages? “Bilingual.” What do you call someone who speaks only one language? “American.”

As lame as this joke may be, it does reflect a very real perception of Americans. America is a melting pot of all cultures, races and religions. Despite our vast richness of such a linguistic background, we have had a quick assimilation into English. The pattern of such a language shift has been documented to last no more than three generations. Consequently, grandchildren of today’s new immigrants will hardly speak the language of their ancestors. Not only that, but many countries have made English-language education compulsory. In Germany, for example, students are required to study English in grade school. Yet, for some reason, the very suggestion of similar mandatory foreign language education programs gives rise to a sort of nationalist fury. Hence, this assimilation, in conjunction with little bilingual education is one troublesome aspect for American students studying abroad.

In stark contrast, Europeans often speak two or more languages. Of course, there are obvious reasons for this. It would be easy to run into five or more different languages in a single week spent traveling around Europe. The U.S. is the size of Europe, but I don’t speak New York, Minnesota, or California. This obviously isn’t the case in America, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t receive or apply ourselves to the study of foreign languages.

Many, but not all study abroad programs require your level in the foreign language to be above third-year college level. Americans who hang out with other Americans abroad, do so because they are too afraid to look like fools by saying or pronouncing something wrong. So instead, they hang out with each other, rather than meeting the locals. Frankly, this is a good tourist experience and in that case, modern “study abroad” should really be renamed “vacation abroad… for college credits.”

Another interesting point worth mentioning is today’s communication technologies in the cross-cultural experiences of students. The Internet allows study abroad students to live vicariously through social media, and thus diminishing the experience considerably. Obviously, the fundamental purpose of communication technology is to build bridges between people from every corner of the world. Online applications like Skype make it easy to speak to our friends and family internationally.

The problem occurs when students spend too much time communicating online that it consumes hours that could otherwise be spent traveling. It’s really an extension of the problem of study abroad students hanging out in groups from home, speaking English, listening to music from the States, watching US TV shows, etc. In small doses, this is fine. The Internet allows us to keep in contact with the people we know and love, but excessive Internet usage negates the purpose of traveling and living abroad.

Admittedly, many factors have contributed to the perception of today’s study abroad experience. At the same time, I do not underestimate the wonderful benefits of studying abroad, and I fully intend on experiencing my own taste of it. By bringing to light the underlying complexities that come along with it, hopefully students can see study abroad for what it is instead of a vacation abroad.


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Nichole Capizzi

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