That’s the main advice I give to any GW students wondering if they should study abroad during their collegiate years. After spending the majority of 2010 outside the U.S. – in Israel to be exact – I can say confidently that studying abroad is a valuable experience that gives students useful skills, both tangible and intangible.
One of the most important aspects of the experience is language. Perfecting or improving one’s skills in a foreign language is always more fun and practical in a country of people who speak the language. It helps you gain confidence and use the language in social and everyday situations. Just be careful not to forget English.
Fresh off my international flight back to New York, I had to stop myself at the Wendy’s counter at the airport after I first started ordering in Hebrew, then in Arabic. I stood dumbfounded for a couple seconds, then looked around at the long line behind me to see people’s reactions. They were not amused.
Another major facet of study abroad is location, and along with that, travel. When else will you be able to take class trips to the Andes Mountains, the Great Pyramid, or, in my case, obscure Bronze Age pre-Biblical archaeological excavations? I have to say, the small desert city in southern Israel I called home for six months was quite the change from crowded, sand-less D.C. While my friends back at GW braved a huge snowstorm, I basked in golden sun. Soon, sun gave way to clouds as Israel went through its rainiest winter season in years (it never rains in the summer).
Taking trips farther away was also a plus. Exploring different cities, small towns, hiking to waterfalls, experiencing natural wonders – going abroad brought so many exciting places to my fingertips. Not to mention the highly discounted price of international travel when a flight is significantly shortened, or not even required. On breaks from classes, my friends took excursions to places like Turkey, Italy and Spain. Spring Break Cancun? Who needs that? Spring Break Cairo is more like it!
But apart from the language, the travel, the food and of course the learning, the single most important component of an experience like my own is the connections formed with other people. Whether you are familiar with the host culture before studying abroad or not, you will end up learning something new and becoming enriched by the interactions you have with people. You will have the opportunity to acquaint yourself with different sectors of the host society. And it’s not only the host culture, either. Most international study abroad programs are not made up of just Americans. Through my program, I interacted with Jewish- and Arab-Israeli students, as well as students from Germany, Italy, Spain, Netherlands, Turkey and Jordan.
Although I traveled almost 6,000 miles to escape it, GW followed me to Israel. One of the most fascinating things I discovered was the power of the GW alumni network. During the semester, I attended a gathering of GW alumni and students in Israel held at a restaurant in a Tel Aviv skyscraper. Business professionals who studied at GW decades ago showed up and mingled with those who graduated more recently and also with Colonials who still have a bit to go. Israeli natives and American expats alike were all proud of their GW experiences and eager to interact with and help out other GW affiliates.
And so I realized GW’s international character is all part of what GW is. Some students think that D.C. is too awesome of a place to take a semester to go somewhere else during their college careers. After all, they’d be missing out on a semester of internship opportunities or wild club parties. They think it’s not worth it to get away for a semester or a year. And to an extent, they’re right – we’ve all heard the motto: “GW: Something Happens Here.”
But sometimes, to understand “here,” one must spend some time “there.” Study abroad experience is inseparable from the type of institution GW tries to be and the type of students that come here. We’re known for being international, open-minded and eager to experience what the world has to offer.
Come enjoy what I and hundreds of other students experienced last semester. Do it, and I bet my falafel sandwich that you won’t be disappointed.
-The writer, a junior majoring in international affairs, is a Hatchet columnist.
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