(Don’t tell. Image by: lionarea86.deviantart.com)
There is a secret out there that your study abroad program doesn’t want you to know. They don’t want you to know because their marketing department tells them that it’s bad for business, that students won’t study abroad anymore if they knew the truth. So your study abroad program puts it under the rug and pretends it never happens, even though it does. What is this secret that study abroad programs don’t want you to know? It’s that studying abroad is not easy and some students have a really difficult (and sometimes even dangerous) time abroad.
Walk into most study abroad offices and what do you see? Posters and promotional material of students smiling and having fun near major sites without any signs of what life is like as an expat or as a student abroad. I have yet to come across a student holding a book, wearing a back pack or sitting in a classroom for study abroad promotional material. When students look at these images, what they’re seeing is studying abroad is a vacation for students. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Immersion into another culture is not easy and for some students it is extremely difficult. A friend told me recently of her niece’s bestie who is studying abroad and has had issues with safety and cultural immersion. The study abroad program is helping this student but this issue is being kept hush-hush for fear of other students finding out and possibly being deterred from going abroad. When I heard that I got so frustrated. I understand from a business perspective why you wouldn’t want to publicize this story but from an educator perspective, I’m positively baffled.
It’s true that every student is different; handles stress differently; handles new situations differently; prepares for this experience differently. But what is universal is that students depend on their study abroad office/program to provide them EVERYTHING they need to know about this experience. It is a disservice to future students when study abroad programs don’t use negative experiences as learning tools. If you have never left your hometown or state before, how can you possibly know how to be safe in a large foreign city, or how to work out a disagreement with your host family when you have cultural and linguistic barriers or know how to develop the tools to handle a bad day alone if no one ever coaches you?!
In Andrea’s dream world, every study abroad program/office would provide coaching/training to students before they study abroad. This would include: hands on cultural immersion training for each specific country, linguistic boot camp, coaching on how to adjust and maintain emotional stability when everything around you is different, how to make friends abroad, coaching on the university system abroad, and encourage students to read study abroad books- not travel books- but ones specifically focused on study abroad. Knowing about things first hand doesn’t take away the experience of studying abroad– it just makes it easier by providing the proper tools and knowledge to make the most of this amazing opportunity.