Overall ’19: Confronting the exclusivity of study abroad

In the final days of my sophomore winter break, I decided I wanted to study abroad. After researching different programs and weighing the options, my academic interests led me to an international relations program based in Amman, Jordan. One event then led seamlessly to the other: applying, petitioning for approval and accepting. The process felt rhythmic and almost automatic. However, when I told friends and family members that I would be studying in Jordan for a few months, their reactions were those of shock, with a poignant undertone of, “Why?”: “Why are you going to the Middle East? Is it, like, safe over there? Why not just go to Europe?”

For me, the answer to these questions was clear: Since my academic interests prioritize studying Middle Eastern geopolitics, the idea of learning this topic somewhere in Europe felt like a cop-out. Yet my friends’ recurring questions were representative of broader misconceptions about the study abroad experience that plague many hyper-liberal and academic bubbles, including those at Brown.

Historically, study abroad gained national momentum across universities at the end of World War I, with American colleges hoping to “explore creative ways to inspire students to learn more about the world outside of U.S. borders,” as one study abroad program summarizes. From its conception, study abroad was created from a wealthy, Western perspective and based on a concept of education that prioritized enjoyment over critical learning. Today, “study abroad” is still marketed to students as a way to “broaden horizons.” This marketing technique commodifies the process of studying overseas, reserving it for those who can access and afford it.

The purpose of this op-ed is not to diminish, reduce or cast aside any study abroad experience. Packing up and moving across the world, in any context, is a remarkable feat and every student’s experience is valued and important. However, the patterns and rituals that are emerging from study abroad experiences appear to shift the focus of going abroad from learning to collecting bragging rights, and these trends have disturbing implications for the exclusivity of the program.

For a start, students generally elect to travel to an ally of the United States — often in Europe. In 2015, a NAFSA: Association of International Educators study found that 54.5 percent of study abroad from U.S. institutions takes place in Europe, “ . . . with almost 40 percent of students studying in just four countries: the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain and France.” These countries are also frequently ranked among the most expensive places in Europe, contributing to the notion that studying abroad is more for an exclusive travel experience, rather than an education. And in terms of who was physically traveling, NAFSA reports in the same study that 72.9 percent of students abroad in 2015 were white, 8.8 percent were Hispanic or Latino American and 5.6 percent were black.

There are a few clear reasons for these trends. Although many universities, including Brown, offer financial assistance for low-income students to travel abroad, the cost of living in the most popular study abroad destination is a heavy financial reality. Students are also asked to fully step away from the many roles they assume at school, often sacrificing paying jobs held during the year and foregoing a certain number of mandatory on-campus credits, depending on the flexibility of one’s concentration. The freedom to take an absence from work and strict academic requirements without any difficulties is, again, a privilege.

And there is another trend driving the exclusivity of study abroad, one that is becoming a cornerstone of the study abroad experience: the necessity of maintaining an unwavering social media presence. Every day, when I check any social media platform, my feed is cluttered with constant reminders from friends that are abroad. I find myself in a network of activity surrounding travel that I too want to be a part of. A boomerang of a wine tasting in Italy, an Instagram post from Oktoberfest, a group mirror selfie from a museum in Copenhagen. “Here we are,” these posts seem to shout. “We’re experiencing different countries! Are we cultured yet?” I am the first to confess to being an active member in this hip and all-consuming broadcast network; this speaks to the sensationalized social media culture that millennial travelers cultivate. Put bluntly, this is an attitude that prioritizes traveling to curate the “cultured” profile. But this trend perpetuates the exclusivity of study abroad as these acts “boast” experiences that are not open to everyone. This in turn emphasizes the perception that study abroad is rooted in experiences that emphasize wealth and privilege, solidifying the line of separation between those who can participate versus those who cannot.

As we confront these realities of study abroad, the question remains: How do we, as students, reconcile the value of education through travel with its exclusivity? Perhaps the solution is twofold: challenging the expectation that studying abroad is simply a travel tournament  and creating policies that make going abroad more accessible, such as an increase in financial aid and a more diverse range of programs. Either way, change will only begin if we acknowledge how study abroad has been commodified into an exclusive, rather than an educational, experience.