Escaping America Abroad

In Cofradia, Honduras, last year a fellow American student confessed to me that she was rather disappointed with her study abroad experience. Her Spanish wasn’t getting better, and she wasn’t having “transformative cultural experiences.”

I had a hard time empathizing with her complaint. As an American student teaching English, I had transformative cultural experiences, both pleasant and unpleasant, on a daily basis. I had made many local friends and probably spoke English less than half of the time. At first I thought her situation was an individual problem—that some people had trouble connecting with a foreign culture because they were less outgoing and adventurous. However, the real problem is that the structure of study abroad programs isolates students from the native culture.

In the standard setup of a study abroad program, a student lives either with other students or with a host family. Arrangements skew towards the former; in 21 of the 26 Harvard Summer School Programs for 2009, participants will live with other students either in dorms or in a hotel. Students mostly attend classes at a local university. In this setup it is hard to get maximum exposure to another culture. Students tend to become friends with the people they associate with the most: their classmates and housemates. These are usually other Americans or foreigners who can speak English and are familiar with American norms. In effect, students create an American bubble in another country. They live, study, and socialize within a group of comparatively similar people.

By existing mainly within this safe social space, students studying abroad drastically reduce their ability to understand another culture. Whenever they experience something significant, it is filtered and interpreted by several different like-minded perspectives. Such experiences themselves are limited because, in another university environment, students tend to drift toward a lifestyle similar to the one they practiced at home. The standard class-study-party triad rebuilds itself with a more interesting background. There is little opportunity for interaction with locals and local culture, other than with shopkeepers and teachers—relationships that will always be one-sided.

A good way to remedy this problem would be to incorporate work experience into every study abroad program. Working in a local shop, school, or office would provide a good context for students to make friends with locals. In a workplace there is plenty of material to sympathize with and talk about with one’s co-workers. Through these relationships, students could learn about culture in a more individual way and make sense of the numerous small facets of life they observe. You may observe that most of the town lives in standard-looking, three-room houses, but until you try to help someone decide where they’ll put their mother-in-law when she comes to visit, this fact doesn’t come to life. Moreover, it is not a far stretch to invite a nice co-worker home to meet your family or share in another everyday experience. Witnessing these commonplace events provides insight into the nuances of culture.

Even if a student doesn’t become close friends with his or her co-workers, he or she would still benefit from the exposure to the daily lives of a broad cross-section of a foreign society. Demographics in a university or college tend not to reflect the demographics of a society at large. This is more significant in poorer countries where the university population tends to include more and more of the upper classes. However, all universities are unnaturally homogenous with respect to age. In the workplace, your boss, your receptionist, and your colleagues would all be at different stages of their lives and would provide very different perspectives on culture.

Additionally, working forces you to struggle with these different perspectives rather than just absorb and appreciate them. While studying, you are free to maintain culturally pluralistic viewpoints; everything is different but good in its own way. There are few consequences to opting out of culture wars, because in the end the most that will ever be at stake is a grade. A worker cannot adopt this bystander perspective. Workers let down other people when they fail at their work. Cultural differences stop being endearing and start being frustrating when they prevent one’s own success in another society. These clashes are necessary to help one understand another people’s way of life, and they are more likely to happen in the high-stakes workplace than in the ivory tower of study.

To be clear, study is still a valuable component of an international experience. In fact, study and work are perfect complements. Study enables you to understand the things you see and experience. However, going abroad for the academics alone is bound to be unsatisfying. Therefore, if you might study abroad this summer or next year, look for a program that incorporates work. Or, find an accommodating study program and then find work separately. If you want a formal job then find the work first; you’ll need your employer’s vouching when applying for a work visa. If you want an informal job, then seek one in person after you arrive—just searching for a job itself can be insightful. This type of quest falls within the sphere of ordinary struggles, which unlike study, is the one of transformative cultural experiences.

Anita J Joseph ’12, a Crimson editorial comper, lives in Wigglesworth Hall.