Rant & Rave

Tuesday, March 2, 1999

Study abroad
challenges perceptions

By Aned Muniz


MOST of us are are ethnocentric; we grow up in one culture, with one world view, and we take for granted that the way we have been taught is the right way to do things. We learn some rules consciously ("Do this. Don't do that.") but a lot of our behaviors mimic the rest of society.

The experience of studying abroad, living in another culture, is an experiential way to come to a more sophisticated understanding of ourselves and the world. Studying abroad has incredible potential for facilitating students' progress through the stages of intellectual development.

For those who have never been abroad, the experience might be as challenging as, let's say, the first semester at a university, which often means living away from home and in the midst of greater diversity and new rules. The change in environment speeds the maturation process. Students have to live as adults --perhaps for the first time -- and stand on their own feet.

Most students returning from a study abroad experience feel they have undergone a most dramatic, meaningful and life enhancing experience.

When students come back to their classrooms after studying abroad, they bring superior knowledge to their academic work. As Sheila Spear, associate director of international programs at Brown University put it, "They are much more exciting and excited students."

Those familiar with study abroad are more comfortable with the idea of learning from experience than are many of their purely academic colleagues. Indeed, there are still educators suspicious of any learning that cannot be tested and quantified.

However, experience is not something that just happens to you, like just going to another country and having a good time. Rather, experience is what you draw from what happens to you. We become experienced when we have learned from what happened to us after we have thought about it, reflected on it, and drawn some conclusions. It doesn't matter whether the experience is in the classroom or on the street.

OUR ability to make meaning out of experience is augmented abroad. Another country provides a whole new set of challenges, moral values, cultural contexts and dogmas different from those at home. Such experiences challenge our most basic assumptions, certainly a demanding intellectual exercise.

William Perry, head of counseling at Harvard for many years, has said most beginning college students see the world as a dualistic structure: right/wrong, truth/falsehood. There is only one correct answer, the professor is god, and so forth. The optimal educational process should challenge this. When different professors give different answers, or when one professor admits to multiple answers, students should develop the notion that there aren't any "right" answers but a set of different ones.

Perry suggests the goal is to understand there are different ways of constructing knowledge, to become comfortable with ambiguity and to be tolerant of differences.

To summarize, intellectual development is not confined to the classroom or library. If it were so, it would be even harder to apply education in a larger setting once formal schooling is over. We should emphasize education that reaps benefits outside the classroom. It is too possible for American students to get good grades in the classroom, function well on campus and in their communities, yet be abysmally ignorant of the rest of the world. Thanks to an increasing number of study abroad opportunities, this may become less common.

If you have never studied abroad, please do not be shy. Pack your bags, leave your dogmas at home and prepare for a life-changing experience.

Aned Muniz studied at the University of Hawaii at Manoa
and is currently studying in Europe as a Fulbright grantee.

Rant & Rave is a Tuesday Star-Bulletin feature
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