In the next few weeks, many Penn students will be boarding planes and setting off for a semester or more at a university in another country. While study abroad offers students a unique opportunity to live in new parts of the world, students who are leaving soon for unfamiliar places should make sure that they take advantage of the chance to engage with the people that live in these countries, rather than only sticking with fellow Penn students.
Although 45 countries have recently hosted Penn students, that fact doesn’t tell the whole story. The vast majority of Penn students studied abroad in Europe in 2017-2018, the last year that Penn Global published data. Over 20% studied in the United Kingdom alone, with many centered around the region’s biggest city and academic center, London.
A lot of Penn students return from study abroad with positive stories about their experiences, from the parties to the hookups to the food to the art to, occasionally, the classes. But many also return with stories about the pervasiveness of the Penn bubble, even thousands of miles from campus.
Being in new places is a daunting experience and students will have to grapple with cultural, social, and political differences when living in new countries, sometimes coupled with a language barrier as well. The option to spend time out of the classroom with other Penn students, or even other Americans studying abroad, might be tempting.
But this is a challenge worth taking head on, rather than shying away from. A major selling point for study abroad programs is the opportunity to learn about other cultures through personal experience. But it’s impossible to actually learn about another culture through observation alone. Staying in the Penn-in-London bubble and touring Buckingham Palace with Penn friends will do little to teach someone about British history, and drinking sangria with some friends from home and gazing at the gorgeous Barcelona skyline won’t be very elucidating when it comes to Spanish or Catalonian politics.
But there’s even more students who study abroad can do to make sure they take advantage of the unique privilege of living abroad.
There are lots of ways to put yourself out there, and while meeting some local Londoners out at pubs might work for some, there are likely opportunities through the foreign university as well. It might be easiest to meet other young students, but it’s just as critical to try to get a more full and diverse picture of what life in a different place is like, particularly because many students will likely find themselves living in relatively affluent parts of the city and participating in activities that take them to tourist-friendly areas.
Escaping American media might also help facilitate this process, as students can’t expect that locals will simply bring them up to speed on the history and current affairs of their home. Much of the news and public education in the United States is Western and American-focused, which means that students will probably have to make a special effort to get up-to-speed on what’s going on in their host country.
For example, while recent stories about Boris Johnson, Brexit, and the suspension of Parliament may have made the front page of The New York Times, students who studied in American schools and weren’t independently interested in the topic likely were not exposed in depth to the history of The Troubles (and why it’s relevant to Brexit). Any Londoner above the age of 30 lived through it and could further provide cultural perspective, but that conversation has to go both ways and it’s nearly impossible to engage without bringing some understanding to the conversation as well.
This is not to say that if culture shock starts to wear you down, you should feel bad about hanging out with Penn friends, doing and talking about familiar things. But that sort of thing can be done constantly when you get back to Penn, so as much as you can, take advantage of where you are, and try to engage with the unique and diverse array of people who live there.
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