Studying abroad is, above all else, a learning experience. We are taking part in a once in a lifetime opportunity to not only just go to class in another country, but to also learn the culture and customs of other societies. Unfortunately, however, sometimes we as American students can fall into a trap of having a consumerist mentality. American students (myself included) sometimes find themselves in situations more similar to a vacation than those of a study abroad experience. A good example of this was my spring break trip to Barcelona. Although my friends and I did get a chance to appreciate the amazing food, architecture and culture that Spain has to offer, we found ourselves doing a lot of “touristy” things like shopping and renting motor scooters, and spent more time in the hotel’s hot tub than we probably should have. In Becoming World Wise Slimbach writes: “Educational travel, like tourism, is ambivalent. Under certain conditions it can enrich the cultural and socio-economic life of host communities while providing us with unequalled resources for reshaping our world awareness, self-consciousness, and style of life. Under other conditions it can simply be just one more consumer product that we collect with the wealth we’ve accumulated…” (35). Irwin Abrams of the international peace movement claims that study abroad experiences are “no more than sight-seeing with a syllabus” (35). Based on my own personal experiences with both myself and other study abroad students I am forced to partially agree with these statements.
Personally, I believe that one of the biggest reasons for these problems among American students in particular is the Americanization of the majority of the world. Things such as American consumer products and American food/ music can be found in almost all of the places around the world in which there are American students living. For example, on my walk to class every morning I pass an Apple Store, a Nike store and a Hard Rock Café. One of the ways that we as American students can escape the risk of gaining no new cultural knowledge is by avoiding these “American” options that are available to us. For example, try a local café in your city instead of Starbucks in the morning or, if there is a language other than English, try speaking the local language. I have found that the best way to gain cultural knowledge and a “well-traveled mind” is to interact with locals, especially here in Italy where there is a significant language and cultural barrier from the United States.
My experiences on Easter weekend were a very significant step for me in terms of becoming a part of the global community. Four years ago I participated in an Italian exchange program offered at my high school with a Sicilian girl named Lucia. In this program Lucia stayed with my family and me for two weeks in New Jersey, after which I stayed with her and her family in Palermo, Sicily for two weeks. It was certainly an unforgettable experience that is actually the reason why I have always wanted to study abroad. This Easter, because I am studying in Italy, I had the privilege of returning to Sicily and spending Easter with Lucia and her family. I was able to practice my Italian and learned a lot about Italian traditions for Easter. There was one experience, though, that stood out to me the most. Four years ago when I was staying with Lucia’s family, her father had written a sign on their kitchen door with the Italian word for kitchen, “cucina”, so I would know where it was. Then he had me write the word “kitchen” underneath it and sign my name. Last weekend, when I returned for Easter, the sign was still on the door after four whole years. This experience made me realize just how much of an impact my two-week stay had on Lucia and her family. It also made me realize that, through experiences like these, I am working towards developing a “well-traveled mind” and becoming a part of the global community.