7 Reasons Why Small Town America Should Study Abroad

by Ben Olmstead

Some people say that any place is as big as you make it. Those people obviously never grew up in a small town. While there are many reasons to sing small town USA’s praises, it doesn’t take a city slicker to recognize that things sort of change the older you get.

In fact, you may have already noticed some things. Maybe the jobs have disappeared. Old and outdated acquaintances are now to be avoided (even a quick run to the supermarket seems too risky, is it worth putting on pants?). Hanging out at Wal Mart just doesn’t do it for you anymore. You can safely navigate your entire town while asleep at the wheel. The town bar is a mistake parade.

To anyone who tells you that a place is as big as you make it, it should be worth remembering that the same goes for the world as a whole.

It’s time to get up and get out.

Before you turn into your adorable Aunt Maybelle (embroidered sweaters, fake turtlenecks, and all), take advantage of opportunities to see what else is out there. Small town America needs to study abroad, because small town America has a lot to offer the rest of the world.

Here are seven reasons why people from “the sticks” should study abroad:

1. You have more in common with foreigners than you think.

Just because people can’t point to your hometown on a map doesn’t mean they can’t identify with your overall experience of growing up in a place where everyone knows your name. Small towns exist world wide. There are people that can relate with your struggles. While studying abroad, you will be exposed to people who may look, act, eat, and exist differently on the surface level. However, the underlying connection of your shared humanity (and life experiences, despite being continents apart) is more powerful in some cases.

2. Your career will benefit.

Studies completed by people smarter than me have shown that studying abroad challenges participants to gain new professional and self-awareness skills that positively affect future career prospects. Even if you ultimately decide to return to small town America, a semester or summer of study abroad affords you the unique privilege of discerning your destiny. You won’t be left wondering, “What if…?”; you’ll gain clarity and be fundamentally more satisfied with your occupational choices and life decisions.

Not only is it important for you to know all of the different career paths out there, but it is likewise equally important for enterprises to learn more about life in a small town. Look at studying abroad as a chance for you to help “your people” be more understood by corporations, governments, or other influential bodies. Your small town experiences can make a valuable contribution to large-scale efforts.

Teenager writing in her journal

3. Your understanding of the world won’t be confined to geography class or the news.

No textbook or 60-second news segment can capture the complexity (and beauty) of the people and cultures of our planet. They exist to be lived in, to be witnessed firsthand, to be experienced. Why live forever in fear of what else out there? (That sounds pretty crummy, anyway). Challenge your longstanding notions of “us” vs. “them” and move toward a more compassionate middle ground.

4. It’s not just an excuse to take your (questionable) drinking habits to another zip code.

If that were the case, you could just head to your neighboring county.

Oftentimes travel is painted as being a selfish exercise, but meaningful travel rarely ever is. Meaningful travel, like studying abroad, is not drinking yourself silly every day and redundantly snapping selfies in front of locations searchable on Google Images. It’s a full-on whirlwind of confusion, humility, vulnerability, and wonderment. It’s pushing yourself out of your small-town comfort zone.

Sound hard? It is. But, as Tom Hanks said in A League of Their Own, “There’s no crying in baseball.” Oops, what we mean is: “The hard is what makes it great.”

5. You will find that learning can be exciting again.

Forget the traditional four walled classroom filled with the same classmates you’ve had since kindergarten. Studying abroad is about experiential learning, the kind of learning that happens both inside and outside of the classroom. Life lessons learned abroad will come in strange packages, oftentimes disguised as something as simple as a walk to class or a conversation with a local resident.

Just think: none of your teachers will accidentally call you by your older sibling’s name, either!

6. You’ll come back with new perspectives to share with others.

Study abroad returnees often come home changed. This is not a bad thing. If your town has seen its glory days come and go, or if the average person back home is an uninspired, apathetic individual who distrusts people who are different from them, study abroad is your opportunity to have a tangibly positive impact on your community. It is a chance to, in subtle ways, use those influences to open the minds of individuals in your hometown to foreign places and people.

The most diplomatic ways to sway others opinions are often, of course, through food, art, music, and good conversation. These are unimpeachably good things; the kind of things that triumph over bad in the end every time.

If you think that you’re not worthy of such a task then keep in mind that it was, after all, the Hobbits that left the Shire and saved the world.

7. Your world needs to be rocked.

For better or worse, it is easy to become complacent and idle in small town USA. Fewer things sadden me more than the idea of individuals cruising through life on autopilot; letting life happen to them, instead of taking the initiative to make things happen.

Not every destination is a cesspool of pick-pocketers and mean strangers preying on your inexperience. Don’t let fear of the unknown hold you back. You could be the first in a long line of students from your hometown to realize there’s more out there* than Friday night football (*not much, let’s be honest)!

Let your semester of study abroad rock your world. Even if you’re not a particularly gifted linguist, cook, artist, musician, or extrovert, travel will still jolt you.

If you allow yourself to be open to things you wouldn’t normally be interested in, if you truly absorb the experience, then travel is still an enormously transformative experience. Travel is good for all people.
Students choosing books in a library

Studying abroad will be an undoubtedly positive experience for you.

Besides the potential for insane city traffic (but on the bright side, it’s less likely you’ll get stuck behind a tractor on the road!).

The world has a lot to offer small towns. I’ve seen it with my own eyes because I happen to live in one (many people have left this town and returned to make it greater than it was before). If it helps other people and it helps you, if it makes you a stronger person and it’s an absolute blast, then what’s holding you back? 

Push yourself to strike out on your own and study abroad in a town where nobody knows your name (or your dirty laundry!). Just remember to lock your door when you leave your house.