Studying abroad is about more than experiencing new learning environments, it’s about experiencing entirely new cultures, traditions and people. While European countries are full of cultural and historical significance, it’s often hard to differentiate aspects of the culture because the United States is similar to many Western European countries. But by getting outside of Europe and studying abroad outside of your comfort zone, students can learn more about another culture and learn how to live in an unfamiliar environment.
Nearly 70 percent of students at GW that studied abroad in the past five years went to Europe, and the most popular destinations were the United Kingdom, France, Spain and Italy. While Europe is a diverse continent with many different cultures, these countries aren’t the best choices for students looking to expand their learning and face a challenge by experiencing new cultures because European culture is very familiar to Americans. Instead, students should consider studying abroad outside of Europe.
Every country in Europe has a unique culture and history, so it’s hard to make a blanket declaration that you shouldn’t go to any of them. But the majority of European study abroad options at GW in Western Europe are in major cities where people speak English as their first or second language.
Going where people have been exposed to American culture their entire lives due to media and strong relations between the countries isn’t going to create the interactions that make study abroad informative. Rather, you’ll be just another American college student in a city where there are thousands of others.
But going outside of Europe is a less common choice that allows you to experience a culture that many other study abroad students haven’t. If our study abroad program is about intercultural awareness and diversity, it should encourage students to take risks by choosing not to study in Europe.
In addition to making an unusual choice, students who study abroad outside of Europe get to learn directly from what is often a less globally known culture. While the British Museum in London is filled with wonders like the Rosetta Stone and the Koh-i-Noor diamond, students can’t ignore that these relics are made available because of the country’s imperialist past. But students don’t have to experience just a small portion of stolen history from Egypt or India or numerous other nations by going to European countries. They can study abroad directly in Asia, Africa and Latin America and immerse themselves in the area’s history and culture without a Westernized perspective. Going to these countries instead of the heart of where these artifacts came from can teach history from the perspective that is often not heard in Western countries.
Additionally, visiting a country in which most inhabitants do not speak English provides an extra challenge for students. It is uncomfortable to know that not everyone can speak English or understand the same social cues as you, but it is worth taking that risk to experience non-Western cultures in their full form, not just in the snippets that are put on pedestals in museums.
Outside of Europe, students cannot expect everyone they meet to speak English, which adds a benefit to the learning experience. For countries in the European Union, almost 51 percent of the total population speaks English as their first or second language. GW’s most popular study abroad option in Asia is China, where only more than 2 percent of people speak English and in another popular option, Chile, fewer than 5 percent speak English. Going to a country where you are not surrounded by people that can speak English challenges students by immersing them in the language so they have a better opportunity to learn than they would in European countries.
The institution a student studies at is going to provide them with support in understanding and communicating in the country they’ve chosen. However, that help isn’t nearly as necessary in a European country because students speak the same language as most people and have likely experienced their culture in some way. Students should seize the opportunity to use that help to understand a culture they are being introduced to for the first time. Choosing to study outside of Europe provides the best insight into another culture while students efficiently use the tools offered by the University during their study abroad experience.
Studying abroad in Europe isn’t the best choice for students that want to better understand a foreign culture. It is harder to make meaningful and deeper connections in another country when you are one of thousands of American students visiting. Instead, students should explore options outside of Europe, so that they can have a better, first-hand cultural understanding of the countries featured in European museums.
Kiran Hoeffner-Shah, a sophomore double-majoring in political science and psychology, is The Hatchet’s contributing opinions editor.
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