In “Becoming World Wise,” Slimbach describes a consumerist/entitlement attitude of American students studying abroad. He describes “pampered twenty-somethings who leave home with little preparation, arrive at the program site largely clueless, and rarely break away from the exclusive company of other foreigners; who dress and act oblivious to the subtleties of local culture, and judge everything by the standards of home; who hang out in western-style eateries, party in the international dorms or local clubs, all the while demeaning local ways, which they understand poorly… who then carry back to campus… little of the new cultural knowledge, language ability, and perspective change that marks a well traveled mind” (Slimbach 36).
It is not difficult to understand where this notion of study-abroad students comes from. Many go with groups of friends, focus on getting the best pictures to instagram, and remain rather distanced from the society in which they study. However, I also believe that a misunderstanding occurs on both sides. Despite the best preparation, an American walking down the streets of Rome can most times be identified as an American by the careful observer. It is not because they are rude, or culturally insensitive. It is because everything about them in the product of having grown up in a distinctly separate and ‘other’ society.
The aspect of this definition that I am most guilty of is finding a primary social group made entirely of other foreigners. Although I did not know anyone from home, I spend most of my time hanging out with people from my program. Even in class, I am more likely to engage in conversation with another foreigner than a local. But the truth of the matter is – I don’t want it to be that way either. I would love to spend more time forming personal relationships with Italian students and locals, but that is very, very challenging. I am enrolled in an Italian class here, even though it is not required for my major, because I wanted to learn the local language so that I could better integrate into the local culture. Nonetheless, one semester, let alone half of it, isn’t even close to enough time studying a language to be able to communicate for anything more than short phrases. This makes interacting with the locals very challenging. They also have their own social circles and routines. They are the permanent figures in this equation; “I” come in and out each semester, rotating through like clockwork. I do believe that if I were able to spend more time with locals I would be able to have a more globally productive experience, although this has proven to be easier said than done.
My greatest criticism of Slimbach’s assessment is that he believes many students come back home without new cultural knowledge, language ability, or perspective change. I can confidently say that after only half of a semester, I have made notable and impactful progress towards all three of those things.
I think that global study abroad students can discourage the negative stereotypes around them by taking language classes before they arrive in their host cultures. Even though I am living in a major international city, I believe the language barrier to be the greatest obstacle to establishing cross-cultural understanding.