Skip Western Europe and fall in love with somewhere else

Study abroad is meant to confront you at every turn


I hate to admit it, but I’m one of those people. You know, the ones who start sentences with “When I was in [insert exotic location here]” or always find a way to relate the conversation at hand to their favorite, annoyingly repetitive stories from their time abroad — or their cheesy blog. Yes, despite my best efforts, I do it, and I’m not proud of it. But I think it’s worth pausing for a moment and considering why this phenomenon is so prevalent not only here in Charlottesville but on college campuses around the country.

Study abroad is an innately selfish activity. We travel overseas not for the benefit of others, but rather for individual growth, learning and, yes, enjoyment. And that’s okay! But it is extremely important to be mindful of this fact, especially as I promote studying abroad in less-often explored locations, many of which are poorer than the United States and/or have dark, European colonial pasts. It is tricky to only partially integrate yourself into a community, and it is crucial to remember that while you may be there to benefit your learning, the people and culture itself are not. What you experience is their life, their reality — not a show. Therefore, gain what valuable lessons and reflections you can, but remember to respect your position as a guest and outsider in that society.

Though this column focuses on study abroad, I believe its major takeaway holds true for other types of travel and international experiences as well. When first looking to go abroad, don’t just look at Western Europe — your Barcelona, Bath or Brussels — but rather at less common destinations — Beirut, Beijing or Buenos Aires, for instance.

We are drawn to Western Europe because it’s easy. The tourist trail is already well-worn, so finding information on what to see and how to see it is no struggle. In Jordan, on the other hand, four friends and I almost perished in the desert due to misinformation on a government tourism website. Transportation and economic systems are familiar and easy to navigate. Whereas, in Nicaragua, you must master the art of bartering and ask lots of questions to make sure you end up on the right bus. Wi-Fi is everywhere — a stark comparison to the difficulty of sending even an email in many parts of Ethiopia.

But the point of study abroad is not to do what’s easy. After all, if all we want is comfort, we might as well stay here within the Charlottesville cocoon. The goal of a semester or year overseas is to learn things we didn’t even know we needed to learn — to be confronted by other perspectives and ways of life we never knew existed.

Studying abroad in Western Europe can absolutely be an enriching, impactful experience. But if you aren’t married to the idea, I strongly urge you to leap further from your comfort zone and immerse yourself in an experience that will more consistently and deeply challenge your understanding and view of the world.

In Jordan, I relearned the days of the weekend — Friday and Saturday — and struggled to determine my role within a deeply loving and hospitable culture that still features a number of misogynistic practices. In Ethiopia, I discovered the complexity of saying no, conquered the squat toilet and learned — the hard way — that men aren’t supposed to share hotel rooms to save money — or else their “homosexuality” will be the talk of the town. In Israel and Palestine, I had a gun pointed at me for the first time in my life and finally began to grasp at the oppression that characterizes the existence of millions of individuals all around the globe.

My purpose here is not to blindly trash studying abroad across the Atlantic. If you’re on the fence about going abroad and the relative comfort of Western Europe is the only thing that can lure you outside of the United States, then by all means, study in Spain or France. If there is a specific program in Italy or the United Kingdom that you believe fulfills your academic goals in a way no other school can, please go and do it. If your parent is a nervous wreck about their baby being thousands of miles from home, and they are extremely comforted by the familiar physical and social infrastructure of places like Ireland or Portugal, take what you can get and cross the pond.

But if, on the other hand, your personal study abroad goals or constraints do not require you to stick to Western Europe, go somewhere else. Interested in learning or improving language skills? Study Spanish in Argentina or Ecuador, French in Cameroon or Morocco, Portuguese in Brazil or English in Belize or the UAE — sorry, German and Italian students. Want to see some of the most famous sites in the world? Head to Peru or China and visit Machu Picchu or the Great Wall.

While you are able to — and should — take the path less traveled by, regardless of where you spend your time abroad, it is undeniable that certain parts of the globe offer more frequent opportunities for deeper reflection and personal growth. Navigating European markets does not confront or overwhelm you in the same way as a Moroccan souk, nor will the average Brit you meet on the street view life as differently from you as the typical Turk. Both experiences are valuable, but the latter undoubtedly causes more common and intense introspection — a critical ingredient for personal change.

No matter where you end up, make the most of it. Get frustrated. Ask why. Experience something that takes your breath away. Experience something that makes you want to scream. Learn how to communicate without a common language. Try something new so often that it becomes old. Learn. Grow.

But most importantly, go. 

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