In Praise of Study Abroad


At the close of the summer of 1969, I boarded a Boeing 707 at San Francisco International Airport and flew to Paris on my way to a junior year abroad program in West Berlin. I was brimming with all the zeal of a 19-­year-old on the threshold of liberation from the perceived dullness of his central California home. I could not know then, as I do now with the perspective of whatever wisdom middle-age has to offer, how little prepared I was to spend a year in another country or how transforming it would be.

Besides being young and enthusiastic, I was also provincial, inexperienced, and naive. I had traveled outside of California only once, and never outside the United States. I had studied three foreign languages in high school and college but had never actually used one of them in the "authentic" environment. I had never seen snow fall, attended an opera, ridden on a subway, or been away from home for more than a few weeks.

It was a propitious time to be abroad, though. In the course of the year, I experienced events firsthand or from an entirely different vantage point from most Americans. The war in Vietnam intensified and with it the student protests, culminating in the tragedy of Kent State -- and the largest riots in Berlin since the 1930s. The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia was only a year old, but a new U.S. president spoke of detente and promised a new era in international relations. In October of 1969, the dollar was devalued for the first time in post-war history, and the revalued German mark taught me and my cohorts a direct lesson in economics: we suddenly had a little less money than we had the day before. That same month Willy Brandt was elected Chancellor and led the first socialist government in post-war Germany; the first, tentative steps toward rapprochement with the East had begun. And for a young American student, West Berlin was a kind of experiential socio­-political laboratory -- complete with border crossings, armed guards, and barbed wire -- that made the Cold War the stuff of daily life.

My plane landed in Paris on the 25th anniversary of the city's liberation by Allied troops and just a few days before the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War. History transformed itself from textbook and dull fact into daily reality; confrontation with a tangible, concrete past was inescapable. The very streets of Amsterdam, London, Paris, Berlin and the other cities I visited all bespoke a past that before my study abroad had seemed only vaguely connected to any part of my own being. But now the grim majesty of the bombed out Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in the center of West Berlin served as a solemn monument to the tragedy and destruction of the war. And I will never forget the moment when I visited the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam and saw pencil marks on a bedroom wall where the families had recorded the heights of the growing children throughout the years of hiding. I understood at that crystallizing moment, in a way I could not before, that the Holocaust was far more than what motion pictures or books could convey: it instantly became a real and recent event to me that had occurred only a few short years before I was born.

In Berlin I was accosted by an array of theater, opera, ballet, music and cabaret that challenged my TV- and movie-fed American sense of culture. Slowly and experimentally I learned to discern and truly appreciate the valued role of the arts in society. When I attended my first opera, a production of Tristan und Isolde, at the German State Opera, I had no way of knowing what a poor choice it was for a novice, and I consequently understood little and enjoyed even less. But I left the theater with a budding sense of a world I had never experienced and which I began to understand meant a great deal to many people.

During my year abroad I met people whose values were different than mine - subtly different in ways that cannot be fully grasped by a upbringing, and education. Through forays into East Berlin I encountered a socio-political system and ideology fundamentally different from, and in fact antagonistic to, my own. Like many Americans abroad, I became fascinated by the "otherness" of East Berlin that, while unappealing and even frightening at times, was not quite as evil as I had been led to believe.

I was required to enroll in an intensive, eight-week German language course in southern Germany before moving on to Berlin, and traveling from
Paris, I changed trains in Bern. It was there that I first spoke my brand of broken, textbook German when I inquired about where to find my connecting
train. After studying German for three years in high school and two years in college, I could barely understand the train conductor, especially with his Swiss-accented German. Nor could I make myself understood without heroic effort. In the following weeks I found my German was often and quite literally laughable; I experienced the alienation that being foreign can create. I attended my first German movie and emerged from the theater frustrated and angry to have understood only about 10 percent of the dialogue. I struggled to give verbal form to abstract thoughts that were so easily expressed in my native language, but always fell short of the point in German.

But it was impossible to not learn the language: to survive meant learning German. The landlady in the boarding house where I lived spoke not a word of English, nor did my Ecuadoran roommate. The shopkeepers in town could or would not speak any language other than German, and most of my fellow students were not Americans. The German language enveloped me every moment of my waking days and assaulted me in a way sitting in a language class for 50 minutes three times a week back home never could. In the brief span of eight weeks I found myself plumbing the depths of another language. Slowly and almost imperceptibly the veil separating me from another language and culture was lifted. By October I could take the exam that allowed me to enroll as a full matriculate at the Free University of Berlin, and I have never fully lost my facility in German or --more important still -- in an understanding of the immense power of language as a bearer of culture.

Today, I look back on that year spent abroad with the eye of a college president and ask: Are the experiences of American college students who study abroad today as worthwhile as mine were more than a generation ago?

The answer can only be an unqualified "yes." Today more than ever before it is essential for American students to live and learn for a portion of their college years outside the United States, preferably in a non-English speaking country, and there are specific factors that underscore this.

First, and perhaps most obvious, is the growing economic competition. In 1969, America was virtually unassailable in its economic strength. Now we face, the impact on our economy and national psyche of more efficient, less expensive labor combined with high-quality goods and services from countries like China and India.

Second, the communications revolution has fundamentally altered the way we relate to other peoples and cultures. A long distance, collect telephone call from Germany to the U.S. 36 years ago was still a relatively formidable expense at about $15 for three minutes, the equivalent of $41 today. (To place a collect call as a student in Berlin in those pre-MCI card days, I had to go to the main post office to order the call and wait for it to be put through.) Now in my hotel room I can watch CNN on TV, talk on the telephone with my wife for a good half-hour on my cell phone, check my e-mail or get a fax from my office. We not only can, but are often expected to communicate with people throughout the world, and the ease of such communication will only increase exponentially over the next few years.

Communication, however, demands mutual understanding. Anyone who has spoken to a business client or to a colleague from another country over the telephone can attest to how difficult communication can be with cultural or linguistic barriers added to any minor technical difficulties. This simply emphasizes the fact that we cannot understand others unless we ourselves have been the "other," and can accept that our way of speaking or doing things is not necessarily the "right" way.

The second factor that makes study abroad even more essential today is the dramatic way that the political scene has changed. International relations are far more dynamic and challenging than in 1969. There is increasing pressure to regard the U.S. and other countries as interdependent. Students who have studied abroad are better able to understand this and are far more prepared to cope with the world.

Third, is the need to become more collaborative with other nations, the flip side of competition often overlooked. We must more than ever before expose young people to other cultures and languages, and this must be considered one of the essential qualities that defines the educated person in our society. This should begin with high school at the very latest and must continue through the college years. Americans can no longer afford to ignore the realities of global markets and economics. Today U.S. markets are also world-wide, and U.S. corporations and industries are involved in a myriad of joint ventures with foreign companies.

These are realistic and utilitarian reasons to support study abroad programs as an essential part of our high school and college curricula. But an even more compelling reason is what study abroad can contribute to a student's liberal education and intellectual growth. At many of our institutions of higher learning we speak of "diversity" and "multiculturalism," and value these concepts in a host of ways in general education courses and co-curricular activities. Students who study abroad live these concepts as genuine personal experiences that shape and mold their ideas and minds for a lifetime.

When it comes to my study abroad experiences, I have to admit that I am not alone in having had such a rich, expansive year of my life. True, not
everyone who studies abroad shares the same experiences. My junior year in West Berlin provided a rich introduction to the arts and a dramatic view of the Cold War due to that city's unique location and role in history. Other students experienced cultures even more foreign and exotic, while still others saw extremes of poverty and wealth that I did not.

But it is the commonalities among Americans who study abroad that grab our attention. American students abroad experience life as "outsiders,"
and usually for the first time. Most American students can experience this in no other way. To live outside one's culture brings a new and fundamentally different Weltanschauing.

Americans who study abroad understand their own culture and world because they have left it for a time. There is nothing that can replace the
challenges of learning a second language, or coming to grips with a dominant culture different than our own, and with affirming one's own identity as an
American. Travel, valuable and pleasurable as it may be, cannot begin to provide the compelling experiences that immersing oneself in another culture can.

One can make a good case for study in anyone particular place. The location matters less than the fact of simply being away. (I have a strong preference, though, for study in a non-English speaking country, since language is by far
the strongest cultural attribute.) The ultimate value is, after all, in the separation from one's culture rather than specific knowledge about another culture. Students should study where they want, not necessarily where we think the next economic wave will be or where the keenest political action is.

Students will experience study abroad in more profound ways if they have some interest in or affinity with the host culture and if it connects with their academic interests. One student's Paris may be another's Bangkok.

That is why American students must be given broad choices for study abroad. Those who see study abroad as frivolous or as unnecessary extravagance placed on top of already escalating college costs do not understand the immense power and life-long value of the experience. Nor do they see the necessity of it. Educators, and indeed all who have been fortunate enough to spend a portion of their college study abroad, must speak out in support of study abroad programs. The growth of study abroad programs represents one of the ways that America will come of age in the 21st century.

by President David B. House