By Kerry Tinga
When thinking about how to start writing the pros and cons of studying in another country, An Idiot Abroad comes in handy. It’s the greatest travel documentary ever created with a “typical Englishman” who “does not like getting out of his comfort zone” (as the producers Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant would describe Karl Pilkington).
He is sent to explore the wonders of the world. He is awkward and close minded toward the cultural differences and idiosyncrasies of each place, making for exceptionally funny television, but a terrible philosophy to follow.
“What we would like to see…” said Stephen Merchant in the first episode, “…is him experiencing other cultures, other people, and see if it can, in any way, change his outlook on the world. I’ve been to many exotic places and genuinely think travel broadens the mind.”
There are tens of thousands of verified, accredited higher education institutions around the world. There are over 5,000 in the United States alone. At the awkward age of 16, when we barely know ourselves, much less who we will be in several years, some of us spend a sizeable amount of money so we can go to faraway lands, away from most of the people we know, immersing ourselves in a completely foreign culture.
Having the opportunity to go abroad to study is more than just finding a foreign institution— it is an experience in and of itself. That is the pro and the con of it, and it is not for everyone. Some might as well be “an idiot abroad,” unable to appreciate
the wealth of diversity in this world, perhaps distracted by their homesickness because they may not be mature enough to live abroad yet.
In studying abroad, there is a whole experience beyond the four walls of the classroom, even beyond the campus, and that is where the benefit comes from. In my whole undergraduate degree in London, outside of the times I was in the classroom, I could count on my fingers the hours I spent on campus.
There was the British Library as well as the inner courtyard of the British Museum where one could sit and work, so why would I need to stay in my own school’s library? There were food stands filled with authentic, exotic food from people around Europe (welcomed by the European Union’s policy of the free movement of people), so why would I settle for my school’s cafeteria? There were museums and parks and a bounty of things to do, why would I choose the university’s common areas to hang out with my friends in our free time?
They say experience, not the PhD-lecturer nor the award-winning tutor, no matter how good they may be, is the best teacher. To learn from an experience, you have to be open to it, which is where the caveat to studying abroad lies. You have to be ready to swim, or else you’ll drown in the differences. And, if you are going abroad, you should be ready not just to stay afloat, but to dive into the deep end of opportunities, knowledge, and experiences.
A major benefit of having studied in London was the ability to cross the English Channel into continental Europe. In Cyprus, I swam around Aphrodite’s Rock and spent the rest of the day reading up on Greek mythology. In Poland, I visited Auschwitz and spent the weekend researching the Second World War. In Iceland, I sat in a geothermal spa and spent the car ride to Reykjavik searching up about renewable energy.
This short piece I write here was meant to balance pros and cons of studying abroad but so far it lists no more than pros. I am not gushing about the institution I studied at, which was quite good, but I am not an alumnus trying to market it to you. Instead, this is all about what being abroad can teach you. When you are young and open, you can broaden your mind to see things in new ways inspired by the places you have been, the people you have met, the things you have done, because they are all different and unique, and they can all make your world bigger.
To someone else, it might be unnecessary trouble to try new things, such as speaking in a foreign language. “Parlez-vous Français?” “Non.” That could be the end of it right there, but the “idiot abroad,” who tries to engage in conversation in broken French she learned from Madeleine, has broadened her mind. She might not be fluent by the end of her time in Paris, but that mindset and those soft skills go with her in every innovative venture she will go into, or artistic expression she pursues.
What you learn abroad, no matter the institution or the major, is the most important thing you may ever learn, that is, what you learn about yourself and where you go from there.
It is a luxury, but for those who can be that “idiot abroad,” it’s a luxury worth having. It can be too much trouble, but it’s trouble worth going through. There may be risks, but they are risks worth taking.
The world is big and it has so much to teach you.