Studying abroad

There was an interesting article in the New York Times this week about the increase in students doing a stint of “study abroad” as part of their American undergraduate degree process.  The article notes that not only are the availability of programs and places to study increasing, but access to this type of travel (particularly over the summer or for short placements) is increasingly being made available to people in fields like science and engineering where it used to be impossible.  I think it’s a really great thing, although I am not sure I could have convinced my parents of the value of such a program at the time–they already complained enough about the cost of normal tuition, room and board!  Adding another chunk onto the cost of my college education would likely not have been seen as a good thing.  Regardless, I think this IS a good thing and I encourage all students to take the opportunity.  You can and probably will work for the rest of your life to help pay off your college experiences so you might as well enjoy the opportunity to travel while you are young.

I did not manage to venture abroad even for a brief visit until graduate school, and of course now I live abroad.  So it’s like a super-extended study abroad program that I’m in, except that I have to try to function like an adult here as well (reminding me again how much easier this is to do as a student than as a grown-up!)  It feels that way sometimes too, especially when I start questioning if this has been a valuable experience but too strange to make permanent.  That said, I found very interesting this quote from the NYT article:

Frederick D. S. Choi, dean of Stern’s undergraduate college, said the trips sensitize students to different cultures and business styles in a way that books cannot.

”They grow up with the confidence that America is the greatest and does everything best,” Mr. Choi said.

”The fact is that the world is full of very astute people, and students have to realize that things are done differently in different parts of the world for good reason,” he added.

Now I read Mr. Choi’s comments with some degree of amusement.   I hate to say it, but in some ways I disagree with the last part especially.  I am all for broadening horizons and exploring the world, but at the end of the day the American economy is quite dominant and whether we all like it or not, America is the only standing superpower.  The thing that makes it work, imperfect as it is, is in my mind the cultural melting pot and assimilation of the way “things are done differently” in the world–in that regard, you would want to send a student around the world to see the origins of all of the things that America has already adopted, taking the best bits of many different cultures, and integrating them into a system that continues to thrive, grow and evolve with market forces.  It’s a very interesting thing.   So I generally agree with Mr. Choi but not without some degree of qualification of what he is saying.  Two years ago I would have claimed the English college education system was far superior to that in America.  I would not say the same thing now after having lived in England.  I’m not sure a semester or summer study abroad program would have been enough for me to have seen that and made that comparison.  I can’t possibly comment since I have not had the opportunity to be here as a student, only as a worker.   But nothing has made me appreciate America as much as stepping outside of it for a while.


3 responses to “Studying abroad

  1. “the American economy is quite dominant and whether we all like it or not, America is the only standing superpower….”

    Oh, my. Well, this is changing. Really. I heartily encourage you to consider India and China in terms of the massive changes in the global economy that are already taking place, and as for being a “superpower”, well, I’m not sure what your definition is but I’d say that this is certainly being called into question.

    One of the problems with study abroad, as you mention, is that you don’t get a clear picture after a semester of living in a place, especially if you are surrounded by American students who are doing the same thing. It takes time to develop perspective, and it’s hard to know where the US stands–and where it SEEMS to stand–unless you spend a lot of time in various countires.

    I applaud you for living abroad–and encourage everyone to try it! It’s becoming an essential part of any good quality education.

    I’m writing a book on this subject–and perhaps you’d like to be interviewed? Take a look at my blog at and let me know if you have some comments or stories to share.

    Thanks for sharing on this blog!

    Maya Frost

  2. notfromaroundhere

    In my opinion this is not changing fast enough or severely enough to warrant the widespread hype and occasional fear of China and India. Yes the populations are large. But in both cases, you are dealing with an extraordinarily closed society with many, many barriers to upward mobility. That is in the absence of further considerations about the value of females in the overall structure: in parts of both China and India the gender balance in the youngest generations has gone dominantly male (approaching 60-40) due to the almost unfathomable rate of selective abortion of female fetuses. This is a clear indication of two things, that women are not valued as part of the economic engine, and that people are immune to the considerations of the way that these sorts of imbalances will impact the greater part of society. Until these sorts of issues are addressed, I think it will be a long time before China and India are the threats that people perceive them to be.

  3. I interpret that last line from Choi to mean that for Americans to do business and cooperate with companies in other cultures, they need to spend time there learning the language and culture. For example, whatever the nature of the current economic bubble China is in, there are a million ways for American businesspeople to offend Chinese clients or collaborators out of sheer ignorance… and a million ways they will be offended if they don’t know enough about the culture. There are also sometimes very good reasons why you have to go through certain channels or jump through certain hoops to do business in China that are based on cultural factors. That’s to say nothing of linguistic misunderstandings… so we might all operate on the same basic free market capitalist system, but the nuances of human interaction still require on-site study.

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