Studying abroad gives two educations

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April 27, 2010

1:55 AM

Well, my semester away from England is nearly over for me, almost 36 weeks after I landed at Jamestown in a rickety old boat with a crew riddled with scurvy and gasping for freshwater — well, not quite, but you get the point. I may be going home soon, but unlike John Rolfe before me, I’ll be able to sincerely recommend a trip across the pond to my old country compatriots and studying abroad to anyone who’ll listen.

I could give you a load of bunk about treasuring every moment, but instead I’ll admit that as much as anything this year’s been a chance for me to put the real world at bay for a little bit longer — which is not a bad thing, considering the current economic climate for graduates is as poor in Britain as it is here. I’ve been prolonging my stay in that idyllic no-man’s land in which we students live for as long as possible: sans kids, sans mortgages, sans mothers-in-law, sans nine-to-five work schedules and with many of the privileges of adulthood, but none of the responsibilities.

Sure, I’ve had some memorable experiences — from my first s’mores, Thanksgiving turkey and plate of shrimp and grits to watching the Super Bowl without having to stay up until 5 a.m. Seeing President Barack Obama speak in person, gaping at Manhattan from atop the Rockefeller Center, and cresting the hill near Petersburg where almost 150 years ago, General Ulysses Grant’s forces breached General Robert E. Lee’s lines to finally break the Army of Northern Virginia were all additional highlights of the experience.

I’ve been to Taco Bell, been asked whether the British celebrate Thanksgiving Day and whether or not we have black people, and endured a lot of obnoxious cable television. More seriously, I’ve glimpsed something of the “other America” in the beggars waiting at intersections with signs pleading for relief, seen the enormous strains under which you put your military personnel without always providing them with the care they need when they come home, and caught much of the bile swirling around your hyper-partisan political climate — from Glenn Beck’s ramblings to Representative Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) calling President Obama a liar on the floor of the House of Representatives, to Creigh Deeds’s (D) attempt at a campaign in Virginia.

This is not to say that I haven’t been gripped by this country. Compared to Europeans, a very small portion of Americans own passports, but I can understand why: It seems to me you could spend a lifetime in the United States and still never see half of it. Ultimately, though, I think I’ve learned a fair amount about Britain, simply by being away for so long. As useful as my educational experience has been at the College of William and Mary, it’s the day-to-day experiences that have put my own country into perspective and illuminated America more than any textbook ever could.

Go and study abroad if you’re lucky enough to be able to, and end up learning more about America once you’re outside of it. In fact, screw the studying and just travel if you can, and, who knows, like John Rolfe, you might even find your own Pocahontas.

E-mail Tim MacFarlan at [email protected]

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