Study abroad: is it still a life changing experience?

My late husband Ben Brown, a graduate of Baylor University, the University of Colorado in Boulder, and Harvard University, used to say that he had learned a lot from the faculty of those institutions and had enjoyed his time in the classroom and at fraternity parties. But when we discussed and compared life-changing experiences Ben remembered his first trip to Europe with an American fellow student who had grown up in France and Belgium. He remembered his year as a Fulbright Fellow in Italy.

Most of all Ben remembered a summer’s worth of train travel through India and his return to the West by way of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Lebanon.  He and his travel companion, also a Harvard graduate student, told many tales of traveling with the locals, buying food from street vendors, bartering clothes for lodging when running out of travelers checks …. The remarkable thing is that they never worried about personal safety. They had enough street smarts to avoid pickpockets and crooked merchants; they did not worry about street crime or politically motivated arrests.  Especially in Moslem areas they were moved, and sometime embarrassed, when very poor people offered them food, water, and shelter.

In the 1990s Ben established a scholarship program to provide Colorado University students with opportunities for similar life-changing experiences. One recipient worked with a clinic for AIDS patients in South Africa, another studied mining law in Argentina, a married graduate student couple did part of their medical school training in Andean villages.

Those life-changing experiences are hard, perhaps impossible, to replicate. At most universities, “study abroad” means very short stays in a few places deemed safe — mostly the capitals of Western European countries. Not enough time to become fluent in a foreign language, interact with local people, learn to think in new ways, test one’s resourcefulness.

Unfortunately, those of us who went to college in the 1950s and 1960s managed to shape a world that is highly connected by technologies and economic ventures yet very disconnected in other ways. We have given the younger generations the tools and even the financial means for exploring the world.  However, by accepting a world in a permanent state of war and awash in powerful weapons we are depriving them of learning opportunities that cannot be duplicated in classrooms, libraries, or labs.



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