For the most part, I knew what I was getting myself into when I enrolled in an American study abroad program in Beijing for the summer and fall semesters. I knew that I would be living in a dorm populated by other Americans; that I would be attending class alongside American classmates; that all of my program-run activities would be exclusively attended by members of my program. On the other hand, though, I also knew that I would be spending six months living in Beijing, and despite the intensive nature of my program, I was sure that I would have plenty of time to get to know the city and to immerse myself in Chinese culture.
As of now, four months into my program, most of my predictions have come true. I have improved my language skills, I have gotten to know American students from colleges all over the U.S. and I have expanded my knowledge of Chinese culture. My most “immersive” experiences, however, have not come from my program, and also have not naturally presented themselves to me as a virtue of my location in Beijing. Instead, my most valuable interactions, those that have taught me the most about Chinese culture, have, for the most part, come about as a result of my own initiative (along with a little bit of luck, in some cases).
Many Williams students – and American students in general – go into their time abroad assuming that they’ll just “pick up” much of the knowledge about another country’s culture, if they are even interested in that part of the experience at all. We all just take for granted that, by living in a place, we’ll soak up its social rules, interesting tidbits and ways of life like sponges submerged in water. While this may occasionally be true, it does not ring true for American-run programs where students find themselves surrounded by other students just like them. In that case, students are simply living in another version of the purple bubble – one that has been transported thousands of miles and dropped into an entirely different setting, but has, nonetheless, survived the journey intact.
This phenomenon is nearly unfathomable until you experience it, but it is also a shame. Of course one will still accrue many benefits from a study abroad experience without immersing oneself in a culture, but the results will not be nearly as stunning. On the most superficial level, picking up a culture while living in another country is expected when one studies abroad. Despite the fact that this kind of experience is not nearly as commonly or as deeply experienced as many assume, it is one of the first things that many will ask about upon one’s return to the U.S. I of course cannot speak for other students, but I know that I would be disappointed to realize once I got back that I had little new to share about the country that I had spent months living in.
There also exists a deeper sense of accountability that should drive students to pursue a truly immersive experience. Particularly in today’s global society – and as some of the best-educated people in the U.S. today – we owe it both to ourselves and to society to go abroad and actually, genuinely learn about other cultures. It will not only help us in our future careers, whatever they may be, and make interactions with people from different backgrounds smoother, but this kind of understanding can also deepen individuals’ thinking on a number of different issues, both personal and global. Collecting points of view from people whose opinions on nearly every issue stem from a fundamentally different set of initial conditions than one’s own can both challenge and reaffirm existing beliefs, rendering one’s own thinking clearer and more solidly reasoned while simultaneously expanding its scope.
Despite the College’s attempts to broaden our thinking to a global scope through the diversity requirement and a multitude of sponsored cultural events, there is no replacement for full-fledged immersion and dealing with people of another country or another background day in and day out. All benefits to one’s personal development aside, the effects of such interaction on one’s ability to think more globally and also become a more effective part of our international community are worth the experience in and of themselves.
As a Williams student deep in the throes of my study abroad experience, I would thoroughly recommend this choice – in whatever form each individual student deems best for himself – to anyone. While there are clearly still benefits to a less-immersive experience, I sincerely believe that the way to make the most of one’s time abroad is to immerse oneself to the best of one’s ability. Go to the tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurants; take public transportation instead of calling a cab; talk to locals wherever you go; and genuinely try to make friends in the country, not just establish transitional relationships. Not only will this make your time abroad even more worthwhile, but it will also make for an entirely unforgettable experience.
Meghan Kiesel ’13 is a Chinese major from Excelsior, Minn. She is currently studying abroad in Beijing, China.