Study abroad programs should aim to get students from the U.S. out of their own bubble
The spring semester here in Chile is nearing a close, and many of my foreign friends will be leaving in about a month to return to their home universities. They have traveled throughout many parts of Chile, ate local food and gone out partying. They’ve done many of the essential things you have to do before leaving Chile, but many of them will leave without having a single Chilean friend. It seems logical that we would make many local friends here, but the natural instinct is to stick in groups of people that are similar to you.
The university I go to in Chile, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso (PUCV) is very well known and respected, and has a large population of exchange students from around the world that come to learn Spanish. A noticeable majority of students are from the United States though, and most times they stick out of the crowd from other Chilean students.
However, the majority of exchange students who come to PUCV only take classes together that are specifically designed for foreign students, and don’t take mainstream classes where they may find themselves to be the only non-native speaker in the class.
It is very strange to be experiencing a new country but still be surrounded by people from the United States. Interacting only with cultural aspects of the country but not the people that live in it shouldn’t be the outcome of studying abroad. A lot of the time the people you spend time with will depend on what type of person you are, but when studying abroad it depends on how vulnerable you want to let yourself be. Putting yourself out there is difficult in any type of new place, and having to speak in a language you’re not a master of is a struggle that most students haven’t had to face before.
Even so, after the initial first times you try conversing with other people, the fear of what will happen gets lighter. Students from the United States tend to stick in packs and not go out of their comfort zone, especially when they’re given the option to take classes with other American students. Study abroad programs should aim to place students in situations where they’re obligated to interact with other students that are actually from the country they’re in. Going to a country very far away to study but still ending up being in a class full of other students from the United States doesn’t seem right. People choose to study abroad for many different reasons, but the principal one is to experience a different way of life. However, studying abroad remains too comfortable and close to home for students from the U.S., even though they are so far away.
If I wanted to, I would be able to speak in English all day long with the people around me in my program, because of the multitude of students from the United States. Colleges should offer more programs where students are placed directly into a foreign university, instead of with students of the same background.
Sometimes it is comforting to speak in your native language, but I worry that study abroad is not working how it should for English speakers. I feel that students from the U.S. would learn a lot more if they were put in a position where they are the only person in the classroom, and have to feel like a complete outsider. Then they will know the challenge of representing themselves and their country by themself to a whole group of people who are different, some for the first time in their lives. That way, students coming home will not only bring home souvenirs and photos but also friendships that can continue on across the world.