Gain without the pain

University’s approach to study abroad misses the point.

By Maya Handa

Before we left for Oaxaca last winter, UChicago gave everyone on my study abroad program a student handbook with a packing list (recommended: anti-diarrheals and laxatives), a guide to overcoming culture shock (“try journaling!”), and a final admonishment: “You are expected to treat this dynamic city as your fifth course, engaging it as you would an assigned text.”

In Oaxaca I walked down streets and sat in parks and ate Styrofoam cups of corn slathered with delicious mayonnaise. I went dancing and lay in the sun and played soccer under an aqueduct with a man who called himself Pechugas. I got a library card and read Ender’s Game on top of a mountain. I filmed a stop motion video about a werewolf with my friend for her film class. I cooked crepes, disappointed my host mother, and walked around a department store for several hours without buying anything. Oh, I engaged. But had I treated my experiences with the same objective intellectual curiosity I use to analyze texts, I would have limited my ability to learn.

The U of C is big into learning; so am I. But this school is teaching us the wrong lesson about study abroad.

At our pre-departure meetings, they told us that study abroad would be a great résumé builder because it would show future employers “an interest in and understanding of global cultural differences and issues.”

UChicago emphasized that living in another country would be a chance for me to find and adapt to the differences between Mexico and the U.S. in pursuit of an experience that would simultaneously improve me and my chances for employment.

And finally, the school’s handbook told me that living in Mexico and engaging with the “local culture” for three months would put me on the path to “becoming interculturally fluent” and increase my “ability to reach my goals.”

The University is right to be pragmatic about study abroad. It may impress employers and I, like many, would love to be employed one day. However, to focus on the superficial professional benefits of the experience is to take a drug for the side effects.

Portraying study abroad as an opportunity to go somewhere, suffer alternately from diarrhea and constipation, learn how to be “interculturally fluent,” and return, flattens our time into just another engaging text—another “learning experience” that I don’t have to leave Chicago (or even the dining hall) to benefit from.

Beyond that, in depicting another country as a kind of cultural boot camp designed to be stressful but rewarding, the University limits students’ perceptions of “abroad” to an experience that can be gained. Instead, our program should at least remind us to view Mexico (or France, or Israel, or Italy, or Morocco) more realistically and positively, as a place in which we can reside and make friends and have breakfast every morning.

The best thing that I “learned” in Mexico is that it’s possible for me to live in a country that’s not the U.S. and make it my home. When UChicago puts forth the goals and benefits of study abroad, they should demonstrate a transnational ideal: young people who can live and thrive and get an everyday kind of fulfillment from a life outside of the United States.

The University should add a section to its handbook (perhaps replacing the section suggesting writing poetry as a means of getting over culture shock) explaining that study abroad is not about floating along the surface of a country, “engaging,” and learning how to communicate with the “other”; it’s about discovering that you can make a home far away from where you thought you belonged.­­

Maya Handa is a third-year in the College majoring in public policy.