To Students Studying Abroad: Experience Lots Of Culture

Mark Fuller

One of the most encouraging phenomenons in American higher-education in past years has been the number of college students studying abroad. Over the past 15 years the figures have risen tremendously. Between 1992 and 2002, the number of students going abroad increased by 145 percent from 71,154 to 174,629 students. Today, almost 200,000 Americans every year pass over seas and across borders to enrich their educational experience. Every fall, summer, and spring, a host of young minds arrives in India, Italy, Greece, Australia and beyond, ready for culture and good times. This past fall, while spending five months abroad in Venice, I had an opportunity to witness this spectacle firsthand. I found myself part of a loosely interconnected system of U.S. undergrads that stretched across every corner of Europe. The sheer mass of this transplanted population staggered me. As time went by, it seemed as if I had a friend or two or three in almost every European Union city. This was further evidenced by what felt like the revolving door of Colgate students who passed through Venice to visit us. In my travels in Rome, Florence, and Madrid, it seemed like I couldn’t spit without hitting some group of interim natives from California, Pennsylvania, or New York. This student invasion made me smile; it was heartening to know an entire generation of Americans would return home that much more open-minded, educated and experienced in the ways of the world than their parents. But on closer observation, there are certain aspects of this fairy tale that are less than cheering. The image of the obnoxious American abroad is, of course, a stereotype. The loud, arrogant, and rude tourist is one of the U.S.’s largest exports, or so the story goes. I always believed this on some level, without giving it much thought. It was not until I saw it (and lived it) on a regular basis that it began to really weigh on my mind. Stupid tourists, traveling in messy throngs, were constantly an irritation as I tried to navigate the narrow streets of Venice. These impatient, ignorant travelers who would turn red when someone did not speak English made me ashamed of my nationality and tremendously annoyed. Ultimately though, that’s all these people are; annoyances and irritations not worth the time it takes to criticize. But there was a different (and more deplorable) manifestation of this ugly Americanism to be found over there, lurking under the guise of academic studyThough many approach the abroad experience with a good attitude, I would say a solid half of the student population views it as an excuse to get drunk with their buddies for four months. For too many, life abroad becomes a routine of nursing hangovers until descending upon the night with a raucous horde of buttheads, and then doing it all over again. I know because I have been guilty of it. Back home, the only stories you really ever hear from friends are from Oktoberfest or “that time I puked on a stripper in London.” Hilarious as that is, if you fill your time abroad with nothing else but fellow Americans, train tickets, and booze, you are wasting your parents’ money, your professor’s breath, and your host country’s time. Don’t get me wrong, every trip should include some record-breaking parties, but don’t let be them become the sum of and reason for your trip. Don’t create Colgate II in Europe. Don’t let little ‘America-Towns'(an all too common phenomenon) sprout up in London, Rome, and Paris. Don’t restrict your personal contact to your fellow American students and the occasional foreign merchant. Don’t be so loud and demanding all the time. Don’t go back to your old eating habits or just speak English or spend all your time on or AIM. And most importantly, don’t forget to learn because you’re not there to bend your surroundings around yourself, you’re there to bend yourself around your surroundings.If you do this, you will change and you will grow. So go abroad and do it right. Eat like they do, speak like they do, drink like they do, and dress like they do (unless you’re a guy). Learn about your host country’s history, people, and customs. Go out and meet people, different people. Make friends with the guy at the corner store. Ask the fish seller for good recipes. Go out to clubs that aren’t packed with tourists and 75 members of your gargantuan abroad program. Avoid McDonalds. Get into the finer points of your host culture and don’t look up until its time to leave. If you do that, you just might find you had a great time. You stepped out of yourself and got a little culture and, (gasp) perspective. You came back home better prepared to combat xenophobia, closed-mindedness, and your own personal demons as well. Don’t become one of those false ambassadors who, with all their arrogance, apathy, and noise, deepen stereotypes and give the American youth a bad name. Students go abroad to live and study in the context of a different place, not just to party. I encourage everyone to go abroad, but to do it with a little class. Let’s make this foreign legion of students reflect well upon our great nation.