There was an AP article in my local paper recently written by Justin Pope called “American students abroad pushed out of ‘bubbles.’” Briefly, the article is about study abroad practitioners coming up with ways to get students out of their comfort zones, away from popular location programs, and, once abroad, getting them to immerse themselves in the host culture. Pope also causally alludes to the idea that bubble-bursting can lead one to being a more marketable candidate to companies.
The ‘bubbles’ Pope writes about are two-fold. First, it is practitioners trying to get American students to go to places different than the “hot-spots like London, Barcelona, and Florence,” where they will be challenged more, forced to be engaged more, and, so, the logic goes, learn and grow more. Second, those students who do choose these non-hot-spots where they do not necessarily speak the language or have many other Americans mucking about tend to stick to the group they came with isolating themselves.
My first study abroad program was to Dublin, Ireland. It was a faculty-led joint summer program between the University of Wisconsin and the University of Michigan. We lived together in the dorms of Trinity College. We had classes together. We explored the city and country together. The interaction with locals was limited, unless a strong effort on the part of the student was made. I was too busy figuring out who among this large group I’d hang out with to worry about whether or not I was getting to know the locals. I recall during the exam period the Irish TA was talking to my group of friends and he chided us for not branching out and getting to know any UM students as we were all UW students. We all ‘Hey’d’ in protest that we may be all from UW but none of us knew each other prior. We thought that was commendable.
Commendable or not, my goal on this program wasn’t to get to know the locals, as terrible as that sounds; it was to prove to myself that I could go to another country on my own, meet people I didn’t know, see things I had never seen, and learn things I didn’t know. As some might say “Mission accomplished.” Dublin was what it was – a glorified summer vacation where students travel, drink, learn some history, and go home.
As much as I loved that summer and loved the people I befriended, it didn’t prepare me for my time the following fall in the Netherlands. This was a bubble burst for me. It was an exchange program. I lived in the flat of the Dutch girl who went to UW. I had two Dutch roommates. I had taken some Dutch courses prior to going and the program included a language class component. Reading and writing – no problem, but speaking the language was my weakest area. Though the main courses were taught in English, everyday interactions needed to be in Dutch. This added to my already fierce culture shock. I found I had been coddled by my Dublin experience.
Because actually speaking the language to an actual Dutch person was the toughest part for me, the times I succeeded contained the greatest joy. For example, a couple of friends and I went into a sandwich shop for lunch. We all ordered in Dutch. I was the last to go. The man behind the counter complimented me on my skills, knowing clearly we were all foreigners, and asked how long I had been speaking the language and how long we were studying in the town. When I went to sit back down, the others asked me what he had said. I was a bit chuffed with myself as I shared the conversation with them.
Another time I was riding my bicycle home on afternoon and someone on the street stopped me and asked the time. I took my time answering because I wanted to get it right. I replied and sped off grinning from ear to ear. Someone had asked me the time! I knew what they were asking! I was able to answer properly! It wasn’t until I was home that I realized I had given him the wrong time. I was an hour off. But I didn’t care. The interaction had happened. My bubble was getting thinner and closer to popping.
My time in Ireland was a whole lot of fun. The experience of that trip, though safely inside the bubble, made an impression and affected my life in great ways. I don’t knock those “hot-spot” programs. They just need to be understood for what they are, as one student that was on such a program said in the article “her time abroad was a great introduction to international travel that will push her to visit more exotic destinations in the coming years.” For me, that exotic location was the Netherlands.