I’ve been studying abroad for less than two months, but it is already clear to me that an experience abroad teaches one more than any class possibly can.
Regardless of what you study, or your employment, time abroad unlocks a plethora of thought processes for the human mind; it provides real-world experiential learning to contextualize that which we read, hear, and are taught.
Only 1.5 percent of all U.S students study abroad. Yet, studies have shown that 97 percent of students who studied abroad found employment within 12 months, compared to only 49 percent of college graduates without an abroad experience.
Study abroad is a unique opportunity to develop an understanding of how interconnected the world is and the effect that we as individuals have on our local and foreign communities, alike.
I decided to study abroad in Ecuador for the opportunity to visit the Galapagos Islands, the Amazon Rainforest, to practice my Spanish speaking skills, and to learn about a region that has always interested me—Latin America. I wanted to bring full circle what I have been taught in my science and Spanish classes.
As a scientist abroad, I have observed vast differences between how science is prioritized and practiced in Latin America vs. the United States. As a student, I have observed striking disparities, and surprising similarities, between the rigor of education, value of family connectedness, and socio-economic clashes.
Perhaps most important is what I have learned about being an American citizen and the effect that the United States has on the lives of those outside of the Red, White, and Blue; before I traveled to the Amazon, I was expecting to be enthralled by the exotic plants and animals, indigenous peoples, and nature’s beauty in its most preserved state. To an extent, my expectation held true, but on the six hour bus ride back to Quito, all I could think of was the negative effect that American oil giant Chevron/Texaco has had on the health, economy, and environment of the Ecuadorian Amazon and the oil pollution-induced extinction of several races of indigenous people due to improper resource extraction.
Sure, I could have read more in advance about how Chevron has dumped billions of gallons oil into the Amazon soil and watershed, affecting an area of about 40 times that of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, how pools of oil sit below grassy areas and water lagoons, or how indigenous communities have changed the very core of their lifestyles in order to avoid developing cancer at an alarmingly higher rate than other citizens, or worse, become extinct like other nearby tribes. But still, those are nearly impossible statements to contextualize and understand without experiencing them.
Not every experience has included time in the Amazon, but even the most routine parts of your day are learning opportunities. Every bus, every walk through the neighborhood, every minute spent on a park bench, every meal, and every conversation teach you something about the culture, social dynamics, and history of the country.
With that said, studying abroad can also be a great challenge. Time away from your loved ones, in a different country, speaking (potentially) a different language, with family members who you’ve never met before can be quite daunting. In fact, it is likely the most difficult part of studying abroad. However, in these times you learn a great deal about yourself and what is truly valuable to you.
Studying abroad, at the very least, provides you with a new environment to stimulate your mind and your senses, and it allows you to pursue your own teachings and make every experience your own classroom.