Clarke: Study abroad, leave ethnocentrism at home

Students abroad represent so much more than the University.

Sidney Clarke

Sidney Clarke

Sidney Clarke

Approximately 34 percent of undergraduate students take advantage of the University of Minnesota’s study abroad program, which offers over 250 programs in 70 different countries. Study abroad programs aim to push students outside the boundaries of the campus political and social echo chamber and encourage creative applications of global perspectives. They force students to take a step into the unknown under a great ‘what if?’ From major skills like financial management to simple skills like booking airline tickets, studying abroad forces students into a greater level of independence than has likely ever been expected of them. 

Travel is an opportunity that many students won’t be offered again for years to come. Despite sometimes paying University of Minnesota rates at less expensive international universities, traveling through a study abroad program is one of the most economically feasible ways to travel. The university’s communal housing programs, group touring options, and host family-matching cut costs that independent travelers simply cannot compete with. To further increase program accessibility, the university annually awards almost $1.5 million in scholarships for students abroad.

However, as important as studying abroad is in the University community, the impact students have overseas is equally critical. The Study Abroad Center’s pre-departure orientation gives students a review of their host country’s basic history to counteract Americans’ less than exceptional reputation for historical acknowledgement. To varying extents, however, students abroad can still be found drunkenly stumbling through foreign cities, clearly confusing newfound European fashion trends and surface-level colloquialisms with multicultural aptitude. To even scratch the surface of what it means to be a permanent resident requires so much more than a cursory tour of national monuments, but a variety of perspectives, including those that are less picturesque.

Another shortcoming of the typical American tourist is foreign language inefficiency. Unfortunately, out of 250 programs at the university, only 10 are considered ‘language intensive’ and require multiple courses in prerequisite language experience. Although many other cultures will divert to English to accommodate visitors, it is a matter of respect that students studying abroad make an honest attempt at language proficiency — regardless of the program requirement. 

Given that travel itself is inextricably related to wealth, and that the predominant demographic of travelers are upper-class retirees, it is absolutely imperative that college students abroad reinvent that global image. Too often it seems, students explore with selective interests in mind. When macaroons and tourist attractions take precedence over a country’s people, culture, history and language, the result is exploitative. Our peers represent a very small subgroup of Americans that are progressive, educated, overflowing with vitality and who seldom find themselves on the international stage. Our presence overseas and the actions taken there can either nurture diversity or squander it.