Why Study Abroad?

By Victor Sandoval on October 23, 2012

Last year I studied in The Netherlands and now that I’m home, I find myself constantly promoting the experience.  I incessantly recommend my friends live over seas; I volunteer on campus to promote international programs; and now, I’m even writing an article promoting it.

But why is it that I want to promote American students to study abroad?  Is it that I am still living in the past, trying to somehow relive my life in Europe?  Well, probably in part. But more importantly, my urge to get students to go abroad comes from the realization that we as Americans have a great deal to learn—not just of, but also—from, the world.

Maybe we aren’t the coolest after all.

Elliot Gersen recently gave a speech at the Global Scholars Symposium that became an article in The Atlantic, “To Make America Great Again, We Need to Leave the Country“.  As a recent returnee, the article resonated with me.

In the article, Dr. Gersen asserts that the value of American students studying abroad will come “not just from greater global consciousness, but from the direct experience that many nations simply do many things far better than we do.”

What he says is true statistically, as well as in practice. As an American student studying in Northern Europe I was importuned with questions as to why America is the way it is. “Why does one of the wealthiest countries in the world have so many poor people?”  I heard more than once. I even found myself jealous of other students;  “Are you serious? Your Government pays you to go to University?” I said to Dutch students incredulously, as my debt accrued silently.

It’s not that I never realized the magnitude of America’s problems.  I live in what is arguably the most left-leaning, anti-nationalistic pocket of the entire United States.  I’m enrolled in a liberal University that, above all, prides itself on its Ethnic Studies department.  I mean…we don’t even celebrate Columbus Day here.

But anti-American cynicism by itself usually leads nowhere. By intermingling with students from countries that are more prosperous—economically, socially, or both—statistics come to life.  It has a great humbling effect.

Upon my return to the US I found myself less cynical.  It’s not that the world is messed up and there’s no way around it.  I know a better America is possible because I saw examples of more prosperous countries with my own two eyes.  It is this humbling that I feel American university students need to undergo.

In what some people are calling the Post America Era, a fundamental shift in how the American youth views the world is necessary.  It is the duty of a country’s young citizens to keep the country moving forward: technologically, politically, and intellectually.  As youth, we have no bearing on what our country was, we can only have an effect on what it will be.

It boils down to the fact that you cannot recognize how you think until you remove yourself from those who think like you.  By undergoing the transformative experience that is studying in another country, you are preparing for a necessary shift in American thought—an intellectual standpoint of humility.  You become a student of the world, ready to admit that France has better a healthcare system or that Denmark has a better education system. And hopefully, ready to act upon it.


‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s humility did not stem from any weakness. Once when a child asked Him why all the rivers of the earth flow into the ocean, He said, ‘because it sets itself lower than them all and so draws them to itself.’
(Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá)

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