The way we have approached international education since the advent of online resources has been quite formulaic, an issue tackled by Jeremi Suri in his most recent column. Our “distant classrooms,” Suri says, have fostered a culture of easy access and entertainment. When we study abroad, we do exactly that — we study abroad and we party abroad. This is the disadvantage of the comforts of our access. It is also one of being American. When we travel abroad, it is very likely that we will encounter the same clothing, music and language as we do at home. We come home with a maturity developed from keeping track of our own passports and navigating a new city, an underwhelming feat.
When I interned abroad in Peru, it amazed me that both Chan Chan, ancient ruins that are a UNESCO World Heritage site, and a McDonald’s were equidistant from my host home. It was easy to avoid speaking Spanish as long as I stayed with the other interns, but that got boring after a while. Eventually, I started talking to the people sitting next to me on the bus to work every day. I met souvenir vendors, lawyers, journalists, teachers and traveling artists who performed to pay their way across the country. Each person taught me something different; each gave me a piece of the city I was living in. I stayed on my bus a little longer than I was supposed to. I explored the city – even the places that weren’t listed on TripAdvisor.
One of the best ways to feel closer to the city is to learn the language. Had I not spoken Spanish, it would have been much more difficult to learn about the people and things around me. Speaking to someone in their own language is also a bonding experience. The more Spanish I learned, the more included I felt in conversations with my Peruvian friends.
The best advice I got before I left for Peru was this: Don’t let your experience be a passive one. Engage in a new mindset. The most important asset to your experience will be the people you connect with. The more you understand the people around you, the more you’ll understand a life outside of your own. Ask questions, be engaged, stay off your phone and just don’t buy a data plan for your semester abroad.
Shah is a business and government sophomore from Temple.