Study abroad enriches education in an irreplaceable way

Last week, Daily Illini opinions editor Ryan Weber wrote a column called “Study abroad can take away from education,” criticizing the 27 percent of University students who decide to study in a foreign country, and he concluded that studying abroad takes away from one’s education. I respectfully disagree.

Ryan didn’t understand why anyone would want to spend a semester away from the rigorous coursework at the University. You say the most important lessons are learned outside of the classroom? He said he’s learning lots outside of the classroom in Champaign, too. You say you gained the irreplaceable experience of adapting to a new culture? He told you to head over to the impoverished inner city of Chicago or to the Spanish-speaking neighborhoods of Champaign. No need to “frolic through Europe.”

What Ryan doesn’t understand is that international immersion makes you approach life in America in a completely new and very necessary way. When you live in another culture, one that’s separated from ours by hundreds or thousands of miles, you realize that you have been living in a way that’s almost completely determined by your own culture and history. You realize that things you assumed were just the way things were for 20 years of your life are actually variable.

Things like work ethic and food consumption and health care and poverty, things that directly affect your life — these things are completely different in other countries. We live with them, we examine them, and we begin to question everything. In turn, we become better students and better citizens of our own country.

I grew both academically and personally when I was in Aix-en-Provence, France, last spring. I was challenged on a daily basis by speaking only French at home and in class and by constantly confronting cultural differences. I watched the French news with my host family every night, and I studied the history of the French media and government, which forced me to re-examine the U.S. media and government. In France, I started to care about American politics for the first time in my life.

On a larger scale, I will make this generalization: Students who study abroad begin to think critically about America. They realize, to paraphrase “The Newsroom,” that America is not the best country in the world. And they want to change it.

I recently talked to Adam Dreyfuss, a friend of mine and recent University graduate who is doing exactly what Ryan said students from suburbia should do. Adam has an inner-city job through Teach For America at a poor high school in Hawaii.

Adam has already studied abroad — he spent a semester in Israel in high school — as have a number of his colleagues. Studying abroad, he said, forces you outside of your box. You look at the box in a different way, and often you come back inspired to improve it.

I think Ryan’s column lashed out at the small minority of students who study abroad just to party in a new country for four months. There were some at my institution in Aix-en-Provence. They blacked out with American friends every other night and skipped class the next day and made fun of French people. In their cases, Ryan is right: You can do what they did just as easily in Champaign.

But for the rest of us, who feel like we have gotten something irreplaceable out of our international experiences, I can assure you: We have. Yes, there is lots to do to expand our minds and learn about other cultures here in America, even right here in Champaign. But there’s only so much you can learn about where you’re from until you leave it.

_Emily Siner,_

_senior in Media_