What will it take for the American study-abroad bubble to pop? Or can it not be stopped?

Steven Neff

That is the question I was forced to ask myself soon after arriving in Barcelona last winter. By “bubble,” I’m referring to the thick wall American students often construct to cushion their experience abroad.

Barcelona is magnificent, bustling with the vibrant energy of a European city that has found its voice. The city is brimming with Catalan culture and dotted throughout with Antoni Gaudi’s breathtaking architectural masterpieces. Unfortunately, it also plays host to one of the largest American study-abroad bubbles in Europe.

I was genuinely surprised to find that a good majority of my fellow travelers had little interest in immersing themselves in Barcelona’s culture. Many had come with friends. Most sought out the inevitable American bar scene that naturally caters to foreign students who are more likely to pay eight euros for a beer. And away from the constant pressure of GPAs and GREs, many stayed sufficiently and blissfully drunk throughout most of the semester.

Now, I’m no hermit – I certainly discovered the allure of going out in a foreign country. But what I found more rewarding was becoming close with incredible people from a host of different countries, joining a language exchange program, brushing up my flamenco dance skills at a local studio and discovering the infectious joy of FC Barcelona football.

While difficult to pop, the American bubble is manageable – even in the major European and South American cities where it’s most prominent. Here are a few humble suggestions for getting the most out of your semester – from a broad who’s been abroad:

1. Even if you diligently patronize the best restaurants, visit the most important monuments and explore every nook and cranny of your chosen abroad city, you will still only be an outsider looking in until you’ve immersed yourself in the people who live there. One easy way to do so is by living with a host family – all you have to do is come home to live and breathe the culture of your city.

2. A word on travel. It can be tempting to hop on a plane, train or automobile every free weekend, particularly in Europe, where all those famous cities you’ve read about since fifth grade are just a few short hours away. I certainly took advantage of the cheap but somewhat perilous Ryan Air, which flew me to from Barcelona to London for just 40 euros. If you’re leaving every weekend, however, the daily life of your city gets lost in transit – not to mention that the best friendships are usually made between Friday and Monday. My suggestion is to pick a few weekends to travel when the airfare is just so good you can’t resist and save the rest until the semester ends.

3. Self-select into the right program. If you want to surround yourself with students who understand the value of an enriching cultural exchange, look for hints that suggest the program is somewhat challenging. Pick the one that requires a home stay, doesn’t let you pick roommates, makes you write that extra application essay and has a strong set of language and academic requirements.

Most importantly, we as study-abroad students have an opportunity even greater than soaking up the culture of another country: We have the ability to transform the way people view Americans. We are an army of foreign ambassadors, with the capacity to change the perception of Americans abroad – a perception we all know is deteriorating daily. If we chose to seclude ourselves – or worse, embarrass ourselves – our eroding reputation will continue its steady decline.

The bottom line is this: Before sending in that enrollment deposit, ask yourself a very obvious but necessary question: Why am I going abroad? Why am I leaving the comfort of Ann Arbor and trading a semester at college for a semester away? If your answer is because junior semester abroad has become the norm and all your friends are going to be away regardless, my suggestion is to skip it. Travel is too expensive these days to go abroad simply to sharpen your international partying skills and hang out with other American students – not to mention that makes it difficult for students who are genuinely interested in cultural immersion to sift through those who are there for the wrong reasons. So think outside the bubble – before it soaks up your abroad experience.

Dibo can be reached at wdibo@umich.edu.

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