Studying Abroad: Putting a Face to a Place

No matter how many language classes you have sat in on through high school and college, whether you are fulfilling a language requirement or you are genuinely passionate about a particular language, you will never truly begin to know a language or a culture until you have done one thing– visiting where it is the spoken vernacular.

Regardless if you are simply traveling or making an academic semester out of it, studying abroad is one of the most beneficial adventures you will ever make.

And yet, only 10% of undergraduate students in 2014 actually went abroad, with over a third of those students travelling to European countries. The chance to travel internationally is a privilege and level of access that many cannot afford, so the opportunity to visit these places is one to be cherished. However, we not only need to get more students studying abroad, but we need to get them studying in more places. There are many opportunities such as the Boren Scholarships that were created to facilitate students’ exploration in underrepresented areas of the world at less or no cost.

As we collectively grow ever closer as a global community and challenge one another in sharing and understanding, the doors opened by studying abroad will connect us in ways that no other experience can, and here’s why.

Get immersed in another culture and its language (maybe even more than one!).

With the vast idiosyncrasies of language itself, no book will ever be able to teach you all of the dialects of a language, aspects such as its local idioms, or the tiny quirks that make that language unique from all of the others that are spoken around the globe. Studying abroad gives students the opportunity to completely immerse themselves in another language to the extent that it reaches beyond the text to envelop the everyday. It allows you to get lost in the twists and turns of tonal sounds and the way that language is actually used.

Your study abroad experience is a living classroom, acting as an extension of all the translations you have stumbled through and the conversations you have been working so hard to babble in.

Cahner Olson, University of Nebraska-Lincoln (’17), spent her last year studying abroad in France with the opportunity to visit a number of places such as Switzerland, Croatia, Belgium, and Morocco. Her experience abroad gave her a new perspective that extended far beyond what she ever imagined.

“It pushed me out of my comfort zone (sometimes I can be pretty shy) and forced me to not only talk to a variety of people, but talk to them in a foreign language. I’ve gained a new respect for different languages in the fact that they don’t always have a direct translation to English. The english (or American) way of doing things is not the only way, or even the best way, and that is an invaluable lesson that will help me tremendously as I try to pursue a career in international studies,” says Olson.

Immersion gives us a chance to get involved in sharing another culture in such a way that we will become true global neighbors with our fellow human beings. It puts faces to the borders on a map and stares stereotypes right in the eyes, creating a bond that no classroom will ever be able to fully develop.

Shape your knowledge in a new, transformative way.

Your lifestyle while you are abroad will perhaps be one of the most challenging enterprises you will undertake as you take steps such as managing your own finances in another currency, adapting to a new routine that is likely out of your comfort zone, and checking the assumptions that you may have made prior to your trip about that region of the world or its culture. And as you work your way through these various struggles, your perspective will be transformed because you will be able to apply all that you have learned in your own history and your course of study to day-to-day life.

Gina Caputo, Sarah Lawrence College (’15), spent a year studying abroad in Florence and then Catania, Italy, where for the latter half of studying abroad all of her classes were in Italian. For Caputo, her experience was defined by a humbling self-awareness of her language and past academic experiences.

“Studying abroad gave me the opportunity to engage deeply with another culture. It was especially important to me to begin to understand the complex relationships among European and African countries, a topic that does not receive much coverage in the U.S. I am not the expert; it was both humbling and empowering to study in a language other than English,” she says.

Med student? Physicist? Poet? Mathematician? All of these areas of education can find a place in your new location, with some study abroad programs even serving as volunteer spaces where you can get involved in community groups and movements that the local people are working on, such as LeaveUrMark in India. Whether academic or volunteer, studying abroad enhances a form of understanding and empathy that our domestic education does not always afford us.

Be an active part of the global conversation.

Studying abroad isn’t just about visiting a new place, speaking a new language, or making new friends— although these are defining parts of each unique experience.

Going abroad allows us to find our own impactful place in the global conversation; to find where we fit in these growing patterns of connection, and how we can change them in a more inclusive and inspiring way. This kind of cross-cultural exchange gives students the chance to broaden their perspectives and start a dialogue with the world, beginning one-on-one in a local community.

We can go beyond just putting a face to these new places though. Let’s give them a voice as well. Challenge yourself to not only study abroad, but to bring the narratives of all those you meet to the forefront of your experience. Let’s lift them up for others to hear, together.


To learn more about how studying abroad can jumpstart leading a global lifestyle, stay tuned for more in the Examiner in the upcoming weeks!

Kirsten Craig

Kirsten Craig

Kirsten is a graduate student in Columbia University's Masters of Global Thought program. A lover of anything friend and everything sweet, she is passionate about the environment and the many ways our communication is intricately linked to its preservation.

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