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Studying abroad should be mandatory

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SEPTEMBER 25, 2014

I type into Google: “Reasons study abroad should be mandatory.” I find about 1,960,000 results. On one of these sites, there’s a list of 20 reasons studying abroad should be a graduation requirement:

  • Study abroad students are simply more employable
  • They get promoted faster, too
  • A break from academic routine
  • International networking

With my own study abroad experience fresh in mind, I feel more than a tinge of discomfort with most of these.

I think about studying abroad: I think about skinny dipping in a lake with friends from across the United States who were nothing more than random Facebook strangers a few months back. I think about sitting in lecture with former comandantes from the Nicaraguan Revolution, talking of colonialism and seeing its real impacts as we walked the streets daily. I think about getting a call from my home-stay mother earlier this summer while standing in the middle of Brandy Melville and feeling so very, very small because I think then, more than ever, I realized what an incredibly big, strange world we live in.

Study abroad isn’t about gaining professional experience.

It’s not about networking.

And it’s not merely an academic break.

It’s about perspective, and it’s something we Americans are especially in need of. For this reason above all others, studying in a foreign country should be a requirement at more universities, and especially at globally, publically oriented ones like UC Berkeley.

My argument isn’t a new one. In today’s interconnected, multicultural world where borders mean less and actions mean more, we need a sense of community that transcends these borders and makes us more aware of these actions. We must be both more knowledgeable and sensitive of the world around us, as well as more cognizant of how much we don’t, and won’t ever, know about the cultures and histories outside the United States.

Furthermore, we must challenge and broaden our perspectives, because we also also have a lesson or two to learn about empathy.

When your barbeque smokes up the neighbor’s yard, you address the situation and make sure the smoke doesn’t persist, don’t you? You do, because you feel empathetic to your neighbor. You wouldn’t want them to do the same to you.

Who do we count as neighbors? Do we include the young people of Central America who continue to be victimized by drug trafficking, an industry fueled by the United States’ drug consumption?What about the Congolese, entrenched in the midst violence between armed groups, whose weapons are fueled by international companies’ trade in conflict minerals?

P.S.: our barbeque is letting out a lot of smoke.

Our actions have repercussions felt around the world. Today, this is more true than ever.

While a news article, a class or a well-made documentary on any of the above issues might create an emotional stir, studying, living and interacting in a foreign culture helps stir a greater sense of empathy with those deemed “others” — maybe even enough to take action against such injustices.

Let me give you a minor example.

In spring, I spent about a week with a community of coffee farmers. We spent the days cooking, laughing, working and talking. We shared whatever pieces of our life that we felt possible. I witnessed the poverty that rural coffee farmers face and learned about the impacts the international market has on their ability to survive.

Now, I’m back home. I’m at Trader Joe’s. I look at the coffee options and choose the one that’s maybe $3 more because it (claims) to be fair-trade coffee from Nicaragua. Previously, those $3 on a tight college budget may have been less of a motivator. But now, I see the $3 and see my home-stay family during that trip to the campo.

It’s small, and it’s maybe not enough to make real change, but I think it’s a step in the right direction. It’s a step toward connecting our production and actions with real people and a step toward at least a slightly more empathetic world.

For this reason, living in foreign cultures should be mandatory for today’s students. Especially in the United States, where people tend to travel less, buy more and maintain a sense of exceptionalism that is equally archaic as dangerous, universities must be supportive of initiatives that allow students to explore the world and engage in cultural exchanges. Our education is simply incomplete without it.

The original idea behind public education was to protect democracy by creating an informed, responsible citizenry, whose public engagement would ensure peace, cooperation and success. In part due to globalization — and perhaps in part due to something beyond that overused phrase — our notion of education and citizenry must be extended. Today, we need an education system that creates global citizens whose public engagement will ensure peace, cooperation and success on an international level.

I get the idea of the list referenced at the start of this article. For some, those 20 reasons may have been their honest reasons for studying abroad. Maybe mine was, to a degree, as well. I’m not saying that’s wrong. But such motivators should not be the center of discussions on making study abroad mandatory, because doing so undermines serious discussions on empathy and perspective and the fundamental importance of global education.

I’m still trying to make sense of my own experience. But without question, it’s an experience and a sense of great confusion that I wish for every student.

Alex Berryhill is the special issues editor. Contact her at [email protected].

SEPTEMBER 26, 2014