Studying abroad too closely resembles a Disney vacation

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November 16, 2007

1:27 PM

“In some respects, study abroad has become for this generation what going to college was for their parents,” Laura Pappano recently wrote in The New York Times. “Being in a place a dozen time zones away, where Internet service and cell phones are unreliable, provides one of the first chances for true and prolonged independence.”

p. Pappano went on to describe expensive programs that cater to a uniquely American desire for creature comforts and security. New York University, for example, recently opened a study abroad center in Ghana with accommodations that rival those at NYU itself. The reason? Students studying in Accra, Pappano wrote, “expect a standard of food and housing (and sleep) that is not typical in West Africa.”

p. All of which is enough to make a student wonder: Are study abroad programs sheltering us from culture instead of exposing us to it? It seems that a truly immersive semester abroad is becoming a rarer and rarer commodity these days — the much-touted “study abroad experience” has been homogenized into oblivion. If being in Ghana is phenomenologically similar to being in America, then something’s afoot in the nether regions of higher education.

p. The crux of the problem, as I understand it, is that students aren’t willing to surrender certain standards of living in exchange for a broadening of their proverbial horizons. Somehow we’ve tricked ourselves into believing that it’s possible to experience new ways of life without abandoning our comfort zone.

p. Studying abroad in, say, Florence sounds appealing at first blush; less palatable is the idea of sleeping on the floor of a stranger’s one-bedroom apartment for four months and going without hot water for days at a time. Normatively, we tell ourselves that encountering displeasure is inherently bad. When it comes to going abroad, though, the inverse is true.

p. Judging from the stories I’ve heard, there are plenty of students who go abroad in search of nonstop partying. They seek an extended spring break where the workload is low and the inhibitions are lower.

p. These hedonistic tourists aren’t the ones you hear about when you talk to the folks at the Reves Center. In fact, administrators often act like the hedonistic tourist types don’t exist at all, even though certain programs seem to cater almost exclusively to such people. We’ve all heard of these Americanized bubbles, wherein classes are bullshit and nightlife reigns supreme.

p. I can’t imagine that the “party central” mentality is boosting the reputation of America abroad. As the informative Reves Center staff often points out, college students are prominent cultural ambassadors.

p. If we, the ostensibly educated elite of this country, reveal ourselves to be ignorant of — and immune to — non-American worldviews, then foreign citizens will have no reason to eschew stereotypes; they can go on thinking that we live in nothing more than the land of primitive capital punishment, oppressively privatized health care, commercialized mass religion, material excess, pervasive solipsism and much, much more. It’s always been kind of assumed that sending students abroad augurs well for America’s respectability. But what happens if the students turn out to be really, really big assholes?

p. Granted, it’s impossible to evaluate each and every study abroad program out there, but somehow the wheat needs to be separated from the chaff. If we refuse to support costly programs that portray an ersatz, Disneyfied version of their respective countries, I think more students could afford to go abroad, and they would have better experiences. By “better,” I mean more indicative of a region’s culture and heritage — more edifying and less uniform.

p. Economically, though, this outcome seems unlikely. Dubious study abroad opportunities will continue to arise for the same reason that the planet’s most popular landmarks have become banal tourist traps: It’s more profitable that way.

p. The NYU students enjoying their swanky home-away-from-home in Ghana are likely very wealthy. NYU makes a pretty penny from their tuitions, and Ghana’s economy probably receives a boost from the American sector, too. Thus, cultural rifts will be nurtured and encouraged as long as someone stands to gain financially.

p. And yet, if students set out in search of the eternal buzz, and foreign institutions welcome them with open arms, we have no right — let alone an effective method — to stop them. Of course we could try to herd everyone together and fly them to Disney World instead; it has none of Earth’s destitution. It’s literally pluperfect. Reliable shuttle buses. Killer happy hours. The star-studded, racially diverse cast of “High School Musical 2.”

p. It’s hard enough to motivate sympathy for other people on America’s own campuses ­— now we’ve started erecting international bastions of apathy.

p. A semester abroad merits careful reconsideration. We shouldn’t receive academic credit for denying reality.

p. __Dan Piepenbring is a Confusion Corner columnist. He is studying in Disneyland Paris next semester.__

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