The opportunity to study abroad is one of great privileges afforded to college students. Behind the veil of cliche pictures in front of the Eiffel Tower and the assumptions of excessive partying lies the true value of study abroad: a chance to broaden one's horizons by taking in new perspectives while creating a global network of friends and connections. Learning is best done through hands-on experience and study abroad accomplishes just that, by breaking down cultural barriers and fostering important new relationships.
During my junior year, I spent the fall semester living with a host family in Granada, Spain immersed in the culture of southern Spain and Europe. The conversations I had in the seven countries and over one dozen cities I visited have left a mark on me that continually motivates the way I assess politics and American culture. While none of the quotes I list below should be taken as generalizations for an entire population, they represent common sentiments I found to exist and valid viewpoints that everyone should understand.
1.) "You can walk in the streets here late at night and do not need to worry. We don't have issues with guns and knives like in America." -Our 18 year old Spanish host brother to my roommate and myself.
Dazed, confused and jet-lagged, my roommate Adam and I went out on the town with our host brother the night we arrived. In typical Spanish fashion, this was no quick beer or two at the local bar; rather, the night consisted of a bar hop into the early morning. As we walked home, Adam and I, using our urban street sense sought to avoid perceived sketchy alleyways and dark streets, resulting in a laugh from our host brother. He couldn't help but comment on the level of public safety in Spain versus the United States. In 2010, Spain had 288 gun deaths. The United States had 31,672. Gun violence became a recurring theme in our conversations and continually highlighted the true shame of what we have been forced to confront in the United States.
2.) "Mitt Romney doesn't want to be Spain? We don't want to be the United States either." -My host parents to me after Mitt Romney's comment in a Presidential debate, "I don't want to go down the path of Spain."
Following an American presidential election while abroad was a unique experience. Our host parents, who adored their visits to New York and had relatives in Boston, often spoke glowingly of the United States, but were struck by the arrogance of American politicians. When Mitt Romney made this infamous remark in the debate (after previous making a similar comment about Greece), our host parents looked at my roommate and I bemusedly. The oversimplification and arrogance inherent in the statement made them question why this was an accepted talking point. Throughout our stay, we often discussed politics (sometimes through broken language). Not surprisingly, the issue that perplexed them the most was America's obsession with guns.
3.) "Does it really matter who wins? They are all the same anyway." -An Irish bartender to some American students and myself as we watched Election Night 2012 coverage on CNN International.
The only place to catch coverage on TV of the American election was the local Irish pub that we also happened to frequent for American football games. We sat for a while watching the glitzy coverage on CNN International talking about the race and its implications before the bartender walked over to our table and asked us about whether it matters who wins. Of course, we all agreed that it did. Pointing out a variety of issues, particularly drones, he didn't really care about our collective answer. As far as he was concerned, both candidates were too hawkish and conservative for his liking. It is true Americans put a lot of hope in politicians (after all, that message carried Barack Obama to victory in 2008) and the bartender's question and explanations did raise good points. As long as the United States continues to over-commit itself abroad, allow its financial sector to grow out of control, and permit money to flow into politics, does it even matter which party is in control?
4.) Upon the skepticism displayed by my roommate and I when the European Union won the Nobel Peace Prize, our host dad asked us to "Look at what the European Union has accomplished!"
As we discussed it with our host parents, we began to look past the present economic issues plaguing the association of European nations and glance at the bigger picture. The European Union has stabilized a continent rife with wars for centuries on end. With the advent of the European Union and the euro, war in Europe is less likely than ever before. Europeans understand the realities of wars much more lucidly than Americans. America has not fought a war on its soil in over 100 years. Europe has hosted two world wars. When the Europeans show skepticism about a war and an interest in diplomacy, it is instructive to know why.
5.) "Spanish students pay $3,000 a year for university. Americans from Tulane pay more than $50,000. Why are the Spanish students protesting?" -A question our Political System of Spain professor at the University of Granada half -- sarcastically posed to a class of Spanish and American students.
Amusing as this quote was, it brought up a few good points. First, European students are incredibly politically and socially engaged -- they went on strike for a day to protest an increase in college tuition as a result of fiscal austerity. Secondly, there has to be a middle ground on college tuition. In Europe, residents pay significantly higher income tax rates, but get subsidized higher education with it. This slideshow shows the cost of higher education in 15 countries. If the United States wants to solve the access and cost issues associated with universities today, there is a lesson to be learned and a conversation we must continue to have.
6.) "I love America, but I can't stand U.S. foreign policy." -An Omani man I met on a flight from Madrid to Istanbul.
Whether Americans want to admit it or not, United States' foreign policy as it regards the Middle East is short-sighted and often contradictory. The Omani man's comments hit on this reality. As he spoke to my friend and I, he mentioned his admiration of American values of freedom and equality, but told us he has trouble reconciling those feelings with reckless wars in Iraq and a drone policy in Yemen and Pakistan that has taken the lives of innocent civilians. Can the U.S. really "win" in the Middle East when it preaches certain values at home that it disregards abroad?
At the end of the day, politics are about people. All the themes addressed in these poignant conversations can of course be found daily in newspapers, magazines, and all over the internet. Yet, when you read something in type, it is inherently difficult to connect to, relate to, and contextualize. When you discuss the issues with individuals who hold different perspectives, the issues become human again.
The lessons learned abroad are priceless. They do not mean that one country is better than another or that anyone holds all the answers. Rather, they show that all perspectives matter. As the leaders of the next generation, students should be encouraged to study abroad in order to continue having these important conversations.
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