Why Do We Study Abroad?

by Henry van Wagenberg

There are so many good reasons for you to study abroad that it can actually be hard to sort out your priorities. How can one decide what's most important, when the world is your oyster?

I'll never forget the complicated thought process and series of emotions I went through while making my own study abroad decision; was I motivated most by language, academics, travel opportunities, interactions with other students? I had some vague notion that it might be a good thing to do, but I can't tell you where I got that idea.

A person reading a book

Looking back, it would have been helpful (or a splash of cold water to the face) if someone had reminded me why study abroad came to exist at all. That might have helped me sort out my priorities in a totally different way. It might have given me a different sense of purpose and direction.

It turns out that study abroad, as an institution, was created for a much bigger purpose than enriching myself. That's secondary. All of those self-actualizing, resume-enhancing, Facebook-worthy benefits of study abroad are tangential, ancillary, and somewhat accidental to 

the original purpose of study abroad, to increase understanding between nations to prevent future wars.

Wow, that's a pretty big deal. That places an enormous, infrequently discussed responsibility on you, Mr. or Ms. Prospective "Study Abroader". It means that some smart people once set up this whole apparatus of international study and exchange because they want you to go establish a deep, personal connection with another culture. You are studying abroad so that one day when your tribe is mad and starts waving its spears at some other tribe, you'll step out in front of the whole mob and say "Hey everyone, please! STOP! I know them! They're alright! Can we talk about this?"

That purpose can sometimes get lost in the giant stack of glossy fliers spread out on your floor, with pictures of smiling students talking at coffee shops, looking very interested in art galleries, or resting in the sun in tank tops and bandannas in a hut made of palm leaves. Those brochures come with giant, invisible asterisks, footnoting a very sad bit of history, which our forefathers wanted to do everything they could to avoid repeating.

A good friend of mine works at the International Institute for Education (IIE), based in Washington D.C., which is a large contractor of study abroad projects. She reminded me that IIE was actually one of the key organizations, in the U.S., which pioneered study abroad by creating reciprocal student visa arrangements with European countries close to a century ago.

Writing on a notebook

In their words, "IIE was established in 1919 in the aftermath of World War I by Nobel Peace Prize winners Nicholas Murray Butler, President of Columbia University, and Elihu Root, former Secretary of State, and by Stephen Duggan, Sr., Professor of Political Science at the College of the City of New York and IIE's first President. They believed that

we could not achieve lasting peace without greater understanding between nations—and that international educational exchange formed the strongest basis for fostering such understanding."

If ever in doubt what a difference study abroad can make, and what a responsibility it places on students, one need only look at the history of France and Germany from 1870 to the present (credit to my French friend Quentin Devers for teaching me about this history and apologies to formal historians for my broad strokes on the canvas).

After the Franco-Prussian war in the 1870s, the French and Germans were not very fond of each other, by and large. If there was an opportunity to smooth things over, it was not taken. Instead, French and German schools' history and civics curricula became mostly inward-looking. In fact, some schools on both sides taught their students that the other culture was strange, different, and maybe even a little evil. Oddly enough, the divide between the countries only grew wider. Soon after, a pretty nasty thing called the Great War happened. This war only strengthened the views being in taught in schools, so after it was done, schools only added a few more bricks to the cultural wall that divided them.

I'll let you complete the next chapter of that story yourself.

Library

Though, of course, one can never prove causation from correlation, but a pattern was emerging here, which leaders of the time thankfully recognized. These leaders finally decided that education might have something to do with this pesky, expensive problem of going to war every 20 or 30 years. They collectively agreed to teach about each other's cultures in schools. French students started learning about German food, German language, German history, and vice versa. In addition to economic agreements, which laid the foundations for international governance and the EU, each nation set up cultural exchanges and study abroad agreements, which now have grown into giant programs, like ERASMUS, through which students in the EU can study in any other EU country.

A nonscientific poll, I have conducted among my French friends confirms that each of them does believe most Germans are perfectly normal, human, and non-demonic people. The way they wash their dishes is a little funny, and they tend to put sweet things in the salad dressings (l'horreur!). But other than that, they have been able to overcome these supposed differences. Most even maintain friendships (and the occasional romance) with a few Germans. (Disclaimer: I actually have no idea if this aversion to sweet things in salads is widespread in France, or only the strong preference of one French friend).

So, what are you looking to get out of your study abroad experience? Are you in it for the original purpose, or the evolved purpose?