Study abroad because it kills prejudice, encourages peace and expands opportunities. That was the essence of the messages shared by such leaders as Chief of Staff Denis McDonough at the White House Summit on Global Citizenship and Study Abroad. I was lucky enough to be invited to this event in Washington D.C. as one of the 100 most influential travel bloggers and digital media outlets. I will write another post all about the wonders of taking part in this summit (like meeting the Travel Channel's Samantha Brown and touring the White House holiday decorations). But first I want to share with you why I so strongly believe in study abroad and foreign travel.
Study abroad because it kills prejudice
As a child I loved Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. I read that book several times as a tween and teen, both for school and for personal reasons. Like millions of other readers, I fell in love with Anne. And I hated Nazis. I could not understand how a country could wreak such terror on so many millions of people.
Therefore, I thought of all Germans as bad, ironically adopting an attitude of prejudice toward an entire nation of people. Then I went to Germany at age 15 with my family during my first trip out of North America. I would observe elderly German people on the train, wondering if they had been Nazis during the war. They would smile at me and try to help my family navigate paper maps on street corners. One tiny older woman with silver hair and an armload of groceries even offered to do our family’s laundry at her house. We thanked her but refused to burden her with such a task. I could no longer lump a country of people into a category of evil. We must never forget what happened during World War II, but experiencing a culture in real life dissolves prejudices. I learned that the leaders of a country do not represent its populace as a whole.
Study abroad because it encourages peace
I saw firsthand how people in other countries, while different and intriguing, truly are more similar to people from my homeland than we are dissimilar. We all coo at babies in strollers and smile at compliments and appreciate when someone makes a gesture of kindness, like holding open a door. It’s much easier to divide the world into enemies when people seem like distant caricatures instead of breathing, smiling, crying, souls struggling to find their way in the world, just like me.
Study abroad because it transforms your life
After hosting a French foreign exchange student at my family’s home in Arizona when I was in high school, I spent a month with her family in Normandy the following summer. With my limited understanding of French, it was one of the loneliest and most difficult experiences of my life. It was also one of the most rewarding and transformative, for reasons I explain here.
Study abroad because it widens your world view
This life-changing experience of living with another family in Normandy led me to study for one year in Southern France during college. It was frustrating and embarrassing for this perfectionist to fumble to learn a language so beloved by its countrymen. I often felt isolated living so far from my family, friends and the security of knowing how to behave properly in public. But it was also the most incredible time of my life. I traveled to nearly 20 countries during school breaks and in the summer that followed. I made friends from around the world, with many of whom I still keep in contact today. I learned about European history in a tangible, memorable way not possible through text books and lectures alone.
Study abroad to become immersed in another culture
I learned not only another language, but also another culture in France. I fell in love with pains au chocolat (chocolate croissants), Orangina (a bubbly orange juice), and unflavored yogurts served in thick, solid cylinders and then stirred with granulated sugar. I adopted the French habits of saying hello and goodbye whenever entering or leaving a small store (something I still do to this day), holding the door open for the person behind me (no matter how far behind they may be), and of speaking softly in public as to not cause a scene (something I unfortunately have not carried back to my life in the U.S.).
Study abroad to find connection
I slowed down from the hectic pace of America. I played a lot of cards with friends and drank an abundance of café crèmes at sidewalk cafes. (Café crème is espresso with steamed milk that locals drink only in the morning but which I drank whenever I desired, faux pas though it was). My friends hailed from France, Portugal, Italy, Ireland, England, Mozambique and from all over the U.S. I felt a greater connection to my fellow students and my adopted French town of Montpellier than I ever felt at the sprawling Arizona State University campus back home.
Study abroad to expand opportunities
When I studied abroad, I didn’t just step outside my comfort zone, I lived outside my comfort zone. Studying abroad and visiting foreign countries has formed me into the open-minded, travel-loving, dream-seeking person I am today. The greatest lesson I learned during my year overseas was that I could tackle difficult situations and not just survive, but thrive. It would have been easier to stay at home. But, oh! The things I would have missed if I had not gone. I can’t imagine who I would be today without those experiences. I certainly wouldn’t have been invited to the White House as one of the top travel bloggers in the world. That much I know.