Why spending time abroad can vastly enhance your perspective–and help you get a clearer picture of what you want to do with your life.
I’m a strong proponent of studying or working abroad, especially for college students in the U.S. who can afford the experience. I’m incredibly lucky, because this year, as a junior in college, I’ve had the absolutely amazing opportunity to study abroad at the London School of Economics (LSE) for the entire school year. Before I left for England, I was afraid that I wouldn’t be gaining too much out of studying abroad considering I was headed to an English-speaking country whose culture is admittedly not all that different from American culture. Would I be getting enough out of the experience without language immersion, without suddenly jumping into a wholly unfamiliar situation? Would the similarities between the U.S. and the U.K. really make this learning experience less than extraordinary?
But really, I needn’t have worried at all. True, perhaps I didn’t substantially improve my Spanish skills or live with a host family. Perhaps I didn’t learn too many local customs and traditions, especially since most of my friends are international students. But I learned so much this year that it’s literally changed the way I view the world around me. London is probably one of the most international cities in the world. The student body of LSE, especially, is composed of about 60 percent international students. This means that I haven’t befriended too many British kids, but instead I’ve met students from all over: Germany, Norway, China, Korea, Colombia, Slovakia, India, Italy, Pakistan, Kenya, Portugal and of course dear old America. And, as a testament to the international focus of LSE, all of my classes include case studies about different countries around the world. I’ve covered issues like economic history in Argentina and Brazil, democratization in Iran and Southern Europe and economic development in India and Indonesia. I’ve also been so lucky as to have the chance to travel: Greece, Spain, Ireland and Scotland have been my destinations throughout the year.
And you know what? This year in London changed my life. Prior to studying at LSE, I had a much more limited knowledge of critical global issues. I was intending to focus on American government and politics through my Political Science major, and was hoping to attend law school in the U.S. To be sadly honest, I was much less interested in what was going on in far off places than in domestic politics and issues. But after talking with students about their experiences in Uganda or Vietnam or about Norwegian politics—and after traveling so much and becoming something of a nomad—I can’t stop thinking about international issues and development. There is such a vast body of knowledge to be gained by looking beyond the boundaries of America, and I feel the urge to know, learn and act on this. Studying abroad has opened my eyes—but, most importantly, it’s made me feel like a global citizen. Of course, I’m still proud to be an American citizen; but more than that, I’m proud to feel a strong connection and commitment to the world as a whole.
A lot of the undergraduates I’ve met at LSE are older. In Europe, it’s actually very common for students to take a gap year (or years!) after graduating from high school in order to volunteer or work abroad, especially in the developing world. I know students who have gone to Africa and Southeast Asia after high school to work in international development and teach English. Why is it so uncommon in the U.S.? If I had been able to work abroad before entering college, I’d probably have a much clearer idea of my interests and passions, as well as a sense of humility and global citizenship. I’d probably have gained a lot more out of my undergraduate experience if I had worked abroad beforehand. More students need to start having and taking advantage of such opportunities—if not before college, at least during college, or as a gap year after college.
Now, I know not everyone has the financial means or opportunities to go abroad. That’s why I want to highlight an innovative new non-profit organization, Global Citizen Year:
Global Citizen Year is a non-profit organization which is building a movement of young Americans who engage in a transformative “bridge year” between high school and college. Through an innovative cross-sector model that partners with high schools and colleges in the U.S., and NGOs [non-governmental organizations] around the world, we create opportunities for emerging leaders to work as apprentices in Asia, Africa and Latin America. By providing intensive training and support, we ensure that our Fellows develop an ethic of service, the ability to communicate across languages and cultures and a deep commitment to becoming agents for social change.
I think this is what our country really needs. When we young Americans live and work abroad—especially in the developing world—we gain something absolutely invaluable: perspective. We learn to view ourselves as privileged, lucky to have the opportunities we’re afforded. And we learn to feel connected to the world around us—something that we can’t gain from the skewed news reporting, media and popular culture in the U.S. There’s a sense of disconnect from the globe, that we’re fine in our own little bubble. I hope that Global Citizen Year can change this and play a vital role in changing the perspectives of the young Americans who will grow up to be our country’s leaders.