I was recently asked about the value of studying abroad. Given the expense, the headaches, and the academic planning, such skepticism is understandable. I believe the answer is to understand other people on their own terms. And I would argue that true understanding requires much more than simply being somewhere. While that gives you a feel for the environment that cannot be experienced online, say, real connection calls for involvement.
I choose this word carefully. I did not say “education,” though connecting to anyone without knowing the world around them is difficult. I said, “involvement.” By this, I mean translating the very ways that students now get involved on campus to their international experience. Too many students studying abroad are content to go to class, hang out with their new friends, and travel as a tourist. That’s fine, but it’s both unimaginative and lazy.
So I am suggesting that if you are studying abroad, or plan to, that you think about the things you love to do on campus—play in an orchestra, sing in a chorus, act in a play, volunteer at a local school, work to clean up a local river—and do that overseas. These simple and familiar habits will find a new and exciting environment to help you grow and thrive.
You will meet real, everyday people this way. You can talk to them about your common interests, helping you gain confidence in a foreign language and teaching you what is the same and different about your new neighbors. You will begin to connect with people in ways that will add richness to your intellectual understanding and skills. You can proudly claim to know how your hosts really think, what they really do, and what they really care about. And they will admire your willingness to give, just as they will become your friends, thanks to your involvement with their lives, on their turf.
What better pay off than friendship, engagement and understanding?