When To Study Abroad

I think the biggest thing I wish I had realized coming into college is that it isn’t always a bad idea to study abroad early, especially if you’re smart about it. It’s just something everyone has to decide for themselves. Coming into the program, I thought I was too young, too inexperienced, too dependent on those around me to manage going abroad on my own within my first two years of college. I was totally wrong. My first semester on campus I definitely wasn’t ready to go abroad alone, and I don’t think I was ready this semester either. I was too new to being on my own and too stressed to handle studying abroad. But those first two semesters change students so much, especially with the courses GEFs are required to take. My world view has expanded exponentially (largely due to the courses I’ve taken), and my self-confidence has increased dramatically. I have grown and changed so much from the overly-excited/terrified/homesick high school student I was when I arrived that I’m not sure that version of me would recognize who I have become. When I started planning my trips abroad I felt like everything was too soon; I wasn’t going to be ready as a person by the time the trip began, no matter how far back I pushed it. As a Chemistry major, this was a really bad way to look at things. STEM majors have so little flexibility in their course plans and so few courses that can really be equated from other schools that waiting until my junior year to take a semester abroad (which is my current plan) is going to make my life much, much harder.

This isn’t to say that studying abroad later is always a bad idea either; I simply wish I had considered the option of going abroad earlier in my college career when I first joined the program.

Now, as I’m preparing to take my short trip to Italy over the summer, I know that I’m as ready as I can be with no prior experience abroad. I’ll be going with an OU program, which I think is a good fit for me. It will let me “get my feet wet” abroad in a setting where I can get help easily, and I’m even staying after the program ends to travel on my own. I plan to make this trip and come back without any regrets for going to early or too late.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I let way too many crazy emotions color my decisions my first few months at school. If I could do it again, I would go talk to more advisors – to Jaci and Ms. Vincent and the advisors for the countries I am interested in. I would talk to other GEFs who have already traveled or made plans to do so, and I would stay open to more ideas and more options. Studying abroad is a huge process, and you have to start planning so far in advance that it’s easy to wait too long out of fear that you’re not ready to go. But talking to people who have gone abroad already can help in many ways, and keeping in mind that you likely won’t be exactly the same person from the time you start your application to the time you get on the plane to leave really helps keep things in perspective.

“Dreams from Endangered Cultures”

Growing up in Oklahoma, smack dab in the middle of the United States, it is easy to forget how diverse the world really is. Listening to Wade Davis talk about so many different cultures and peoples that I’ve never even heard of and could hardly hope to pronounce really pointed out how little I (and likely the majority of Americans and other citizens of “first world” nations) know about the people of the world. Even more humbling was Davis’s description of the 3000 languages – and by extension, roughly 3000 ways of life – that have died out completely in the last couple decades. More languages and cultures than I could even imagine have died out within my lifetime. As Davis said, that is worse than the current extinction rate of species in the world by a massive margin.
The idea that we are steadily moving toward a monochromatic, culturally uniform world is terrifying and depressing. A world like that would be so incredibly boring, and yet many people would argue that it could be better. Davis points out that since some people think it would be good for the entire world to speak one language, we should make it “Yoruba” or “Kogi” or “Cantonese.” We should imagine making it a language other than English and then consider all the things we may not be able to express or pass on without the use of our own language. We should consider all the knowledge about the world and our history that would be lost with the death of our language, because that is what happens every time the last speaker of a language, the last member of a fading culture dies: knowledge and ideas and ways of thought are lost, possibly forever.
Davis talked about so many incredible experiences from his studies in anthropology, from whaling with Inuit to navigating the Amazon with various native peoples and even learning about a shaman’s preferred hallucinogenic plants – experiences that do not exist in American, European, or most other western cultures. But the potential for these experiences is constantly dwindling as the remaining 3000 languages continue to disappear. I think that is part of why studying abroad is so important; it encourages an appreciation of other cultures and a realization of just how devastating the ongoing ethnocide is, and maybe in the long run it will lead to some kind of solution.

Second Languages and Studying Abroad

Growing up in Oklahoma, Spanish has always been “the second language of choice” at every school I’ve attended and visited through my public education. I took nine semesters of Spanish through middle and high school, and I had something of a knack for it. That being said, I am well aware that being able to make ‘A’s on most conjugation worksheets in a high school Spanish IV class and actually talking to a native speaker are two totally different issues.
The first real encounter I ever had where I actually had to use my Spanish went about as awkwardly as possible. My sophomore year of high school I was walking down the beach on South Padre Island with my little sister Emily and younger cousin Ruby, both of whom were freshmen. At some point, an older, shirtless man approached us speaking in Spanish. “Sacan un foto?” he asked, making a “clicking a camera” gesture with his hands. Having had barely two years of Spanish at this point – but still two more years than either Emily or Ruby – I kind of panicked. My brain saw a fifty-something man in swim trunks approaching my sister and my cousin (both of whom were showing a lot of skin in the south Texas heat) and saying “take a picture.” I froze. Every conjugation worksheet I’d ever done had not prepared me for on-the-fly translation by ear, and I failed to remember “sacan” meant “you all take.” He wanted us to take his picture; I thought he wanted a picture of us.
Emily and Ruby looked at me; I stared at the guy for a second and stepped forward to put myself between him and my family. He repeated himself, and this time I actually thought all the way through what he was saying. After that it was fine: I understood this time, and I happily (and a bit apologetically) took the picture for him. I took two things away from that experience: verbs are crucial to understanding, and I really needed to get out and use my Spanish if I wanted to get anywhere with it.
I could barely handle translating three words of kindergarten-level Spanish outside the classroom my first time around, and while I’ve improved since then I still can’t maintain any real conversation for long. I mix up words, fail at grammar, and use the wrong conjugation all the time. I can only imagine what it is like to have to speak in a second (or third, or fourth…) language all the time. Even with several more years of experience than I have, going to school in another country, taking classes in a foreign language… I can hardly wrap my mind around how difficult and terrifying that must be. But it must also be amazing.
Last Christmas I got to spend some time with a high school exchange student from Germany. I met Johanna when we went to see my cousin for the holidays, and I got to talk to her about what her experience was like up to that point. Much of her description was as I expected. She had around six years of classroom English, but it still took her several weeks to stop translating English and to adjust to hearing, speaking, and eventually thinking English. But what I didn’t anticipate was that she missed hearing German. She said that adjusting to using English wasn’t as hard as adjusting to a complete absence of her native language.
Speaking only through others’ experience and my own guesses, I imagine that is what a lot of OU international students go through. Along with the culture shock, having to use a second language constantly, and everything else that makes studying abroad scary comes an absence of the little things that you never miss until they aren’t around, like the rhythm of your native language. Buying food, shampoo, and toilet paper, taking classes, and ordering pizza in a different language seem terrifying and exciting at the same time, but I don’t think I can do much other than speculate until I go abroad myself.

Weekly Prompt: “If It Happened There”

My initial reaction to this article was a bit skeptical. At first glance it seemed almost overly satirized, as though trying to make a point. But the more I read, the more I felt my brain slipping into that strange, detached mode it goes into when reading an article about a place I don’t know well written by a person who clearly has an outsiders perspective. I felt myself looking in a bit critically, noticing all the flaws of Thanksgiving that were pointed out by the author, and I almost had to remind myself about my own Thanksgiving experiences and all the positive aspects of the holiday. I almost laughed when I realized this: this article is so similar to how American writers portray other countries that it seemed almost bizarre.
As I read this article, I realized just how cynical the author’s angle was. It focused on every negative aspect of the holiday – its dark origins, the dangers it has created for travelers, and its further corruption by consumerism to highlight a few. But it never mentions the holiday from the perspective of someone who regularly participates in it. The author says nothing of families reuniting (sometimes for the first time in a year or longer), sharing a meal, and making memories. The article does not comment on how each person and family celebrates the holiday a little differently with unique traditions, or on how positively many people feel about it.
Since coming to OU, my narrow frame of experience and skewed perspective of the world around me has been continuously brought to light (something I’m grateful for and happy to address). However, after reading this article and realizing how many dozens of similar articles I’ve read about countries around the world (and even about other people within the US), it is easy to see how individuals can develop such narrow views of the world. It frustrates me that the media has such an easy time simplifying the lives of others, and I will definitely be more critical of this kind of portrayal in any articles I read from now on.