Taking a stab at study abroad

Both students and the University need to rethink the concept of study abroad.

by Ashley Dresser

I am three weeks into my life in the Basque Country of Spain. Though moving to another country all by oneself may seem like the most independent endeavor one could undertake, it is âÄî in fact âÄî exactly the opposite. I am dependent on everyone more than I ever have been before. My Spanish is advanced, but this does not help you open a bank account; a task requiring the use of particular and complex terminology. âÄúOverdraft fee?âÄù Advanced Spanish does not help you operate a washing machine that is nothing like its American counterpart and advanced Spanish certainly does not imply that you can have the same personality that you have in your homeland. I am used to being the wisecrack, but here, the moment of humor has long since passed before I have adequately translated the joke I wanted to make. So I have learned to be funny in other ways, and trust me âÄî not on purpose. Mostly, I make embarrassing vocabulary mistakes. I told my students that they could call me âÄúSeñorita TocadoraâÄù as a joke because âÄútocadorâÄù means âÄúdresserâÄù in Spanish (my last name). After learning that âÄútocadoraâÄù can be used as âÄúprostituteâÄù as well, I realized such an introduction might not be in my best interest. That was just my first day as an English teacher in Spain. But I have no regrets. I am so incredibly happy to be here. My only worry is that less and less students at our university are able to have experiences like mine: without fluff. As Thomas Millington, a program officer for Brethern Colleges Abroad put it: âÄúAs study abroad applications and programs become more business-like, it is inevitable that some students view the experience abroad as a product that can be purchased, not as an educational opportunity for personal and intellectual growth.âÄù He goes on to state that for many, especially Americans, there is also an âÄúexpectation of being accommodated by the host culture rather than submitting to it.âÄù With past campaigns like the âÄúYear of Study Abroad,âÄù I sometimes feel that the University of Minnesota is guilty of promoting this latter sentiment. Study abroad is touted like some rote rite of passage instead of a humbling privilege. Though the Learning Abroad Center does require resident credit and specific GPA standards for participants, it is commonly assumed by students that as long as one has the money, one will get in. What is more, with the amount of coddling one receives (housing, meal stipend, orientation), one is practically on a six-month vacation. No worries, man. Drink up; tabâÄôs on mom and dad. The Learning Abroad Center acknowledges that getting students to partake in more cultural immersion has always been their biggest challenge. According to an unscientific poll of my friends, the programs with fringe are more popular. Nobody wants to fly across the country without any kind of plan. IâÄôll be honest, I was practically dry heaving in fear on the plane, but the minute I landed, I took control. I hit the streets to look for an apartment. I communicated wildly with my hands. I made expensive mistakes âÄî taking the wrong metro or shopping at the posh grocery store âÄî mistakes that normally wouldâÄôve been paid for upfront âÄî through the cost of some fancy program. I would have lost the joy of knowing what I can accomplish when I am determined and, quite frankly, desperate. This is the personal and intellectual growth that employers talk of when they express admiration for study abroad experiences, but the reality is, this type of study abroad is fading into non-existence. I have nothing against those who wish to imbibe in a year-long European fiesta. I will be the first to admit that 75 percent of my study abroad experience in Northern Ireland pertained to partying, and I do think IâÄôm better for it. (I can hold enough drink for three men!) But if this is the type of experience you seek, you should have to go elsewhere for it. It is the responsibility of our University to provide authentic experiences and exceptional ambassadors abroad. Not bumbling, drunk Americans. Unfortunately, the teaching English in Spain grant that I am on now was not something I learned about through our University. Perhaps it was not fluffy enough for them. The only information I had before arrival was the name of my school. No phone, no e-mail, no contact person. I had to unearth the tiny little village of Mungia on Google maps and figure out how the hell I was going to get there. A little bit vague? Yes. But this is life, my friends. This is what employers want: to give you a tiny little seed and then come back six months later to find a forest. They wonâÄôt give you a desk and a detailed description of your project âÄî youâÄôll be lucky if you even get a job title. They will give you an idea and tell you to run with it. âÄúShow me what you got,âÄù theyâÄôll say, âÄúsink or swimâÄù and you better not respond with, âÄúWhereâÄôs the nearest McDonaldâÄôs? I canâÄôt even speak the language!âÄù To the Learning Abroad Center, I challenge you to a conscientious review of your programs. I believe you provide a comprehensive orientation for first-time study abroads, but I think you can do a better job of featuring quality programs. Don´t leave it up to the students to choose their comfort level. Study abroad should be study abroad: total immersion. Encourage more students to go places that people donâÄôt normally go. And students: grow some guts. I chose to live in Northern Ireland and Basque Country for a reason. These are areas that make the average American think: âÄúterrorism.âÄù Having safely returned from one and now safely living in the other, I can assure you that the people are not rabid and it is no more dangerous than any street in Minneapolis. YouâÄôd be surprised what you find when you follow the light between the cracks. Ashley Dresser welcomes comments @[email protected].