Gaining an international education is about more than just studying abroad

Jeremi Suri

We live in an impatient moment, when everyone wants immediate results. The Internet has encouraged this attitude, allowing anyone with a computer and a wireless connection instant access to videos, music and texts from around the world. An almost unlimited global supermarket of ideas and products is only a few clicks away. 

Immediate results encourage expectations of easy and guaranteed success in most endeavors. If you can have it all with a few clicks, why shouldn’t you be able to achieve all you want with limited effort? With the right techniques and connections it seems that everything should be possible. In this context, learning becomes essentially about fixed paths and straight roads, rather than uncertainties, surprises, adventures and challenges. The sure things at the top of the search engine replace the personal creations that defy easy categories. 

This is how we frequently approach international education, and it explains why “global instruction” is often underwhelming. We send more students overseas than ever before, and that is good, but many of them have formulaic experiences of sharing their distant classrooms with other study abroad students, living with other study abroad students and drinking heavily with study abroad students. They return to our campuses with the fond memories of their foreign parties, limited knowledge of foreign societies and the professional branding of a student who traveled to another culture. They came, they saw and they conquered. Few attitudes change, little depth of international understanding is achieved, and life at home goes on as it had before. This is not true international education; it is a grand tour that gives young Americans the instant entertainment and bragging rights they crave.

Real international education is what I witnessed this weekend, when I visited Abu Dhabi to give a series of lectures. Among the many people whom I met from countless countries was a former student of mine (Plan II and Middle Eastern Studies) who is now working as an entrepreneur in the Middle East. She is a shy, Christian Texas girl who gained fluent Arabic from years of tedious practice, repeated trips to the Middle East and many hours of studying the region and international affairs in general. She has done all the standard things, but she has also pushed herself outside the bounds of the obvious and the comfortable to experience foreign cultures in non-American ways. My former student has made herself speak Arabic on a regular basis, she has taken a job in the region that forces her to build business relationships with people who are unfamiliar and even suspicious of her background and she has self-consciously dropped her presumptions about American superiority. She loves America, but she is making herself a deep and personal part of another region and way of life. She is not merely bridging cultures; she is living in multiple mindsets at the same time. 

A simple incident this weekend revealed my former student’s international education. As I met with various local hosts, businesspeople and dignitaries in Abu Dhabi, I caught a glimpse of her mingling with a similar crowd, not as a visitor (like me), but as a neighbor, a friend and a new contact. She was no longer a student on a formulaic educational experience; she was now an international operator in her own right, acting within the culture of her foreign residence. 

Americans are so poor at achieving this depth of connection with foreigners. We speak few foreign languages. We travel in predictable bubbles and demand predictable encounters. We know so little about people and cultures beyond our borders (as well as those within). We are strong and rich, and we instinctively expect the world to work with us on our terms, even when we are in other people’s homes. I see this less as malicious imperialism than ignorance born of our very superficial ways of thinking about international education. 

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have proven, the stakes are very large for American citizens who frequently have to convince others to work with us in dangerous circumstances. The example of my student this weekend convinced me that we can do a lot better, but we must begin early and we must stretch ourselves beyond the normal, limited routines. 

So here is what I propose for students: Seek depth over breadth in your international education. Identify a region that fascinates you, study its language and history and then force yourself to visit, explore, work and connect as an individual, not a participant in a heavily guided program. Our University should do more to encourage serious adventure, with adequate preparation and reasonable risk-taking. The learning involves living as a foreigner, not as an American tourist. Future success as an international citizen comes in crossing the mental boundaries that matter much more than the lines on a map or a job application.

Suri is a professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the Department of History. Follow Suri on Twitter @JeremiSuri.