Over fall break, I traveled to Europe with my mom to visit my brother, who is currently studying abroad at King’s College in London for a semester. We also went to Ireland to see Maynooth, the town where my mom studied abroad. After a week of hearing my brother talk about his current life and my mom reminisce about her past, I realized that studying abroad has the ability to challenge one’s American assumptions. Any University student who, like me, has never lived outside of the United States should more strongly consider spending a semester abroad.
At the University, we pride ourselves in the diversity of our student body, including those students from outside of the United States. In the 2017–18 school year, international students comprised 13 percent of the undergraduate student body. While University students from the United States can learn about different parts of the world from these international students, it is a different experience to be completely immersed in a new culture.
From minor inconveniences such as needing an adapter to charge an iPhone to bigger challenges like having math class taught in Italian, studying abroad forces U.S. students to adapt. Every country has its unique cultural norms that teach students how to temporarily assimilate.
By spending a semester abroad, you realize that the world is much bigger than the United States. Studying abroad is significantly different to spending a few weeks as a tourist in a foreign country. In joining a different society, you are forced to attempt to live life normally. My brother and my mother experienced intense culture shock, as people who study abroad often do.
My brother’s abroad experience has not gone without its challenges. When my mom and I visited him, he begged us to bring him Little Bites Brownies, a rarity in the U.K. He also has gotten used to carrying around a few pounds in order to use public bathrooms, a concept unknown to most Americans. The lack of garbage cans on the city streets also shocked him; he says you can sometimes go a few blocks without seeing a garbage bin.
My mom also had similar difficulties adapting to life in Ireland. She was surprised that her house there had a mini refrigerator rather than a full-sized one. Used to the American concept of buying groceries for the week all at once, she could not fathom purchasing a small amount of food every day; it was difficult for her to get used to this seemingly small change. She also had to adjust to lukewarm water at restaurants, as very few offered ice in Ireland.
All these small “inconveniences” that my brother and mom had to adapt to only seemed like inconveniences due to their American expectations. Before studying abroad, neither one of them had lived anywhere other than the United States for an extended period of time; they were used to certain U.S. societal norms. By experiencing a different society, they realized that the world is much bigger than the United States, and it helped them better appreciate other cultures.
Spending a semester studying outside of the U.S. can also be a worthwhile experience for Princeton’s international students. While international students have already experienced the benefits of studying abroad by leaving their home country to study at Princeton, there are always more cultures to explore.
Studying abroad can seem difficult at the University. With sophomore spring bicker, junior independent work, and the senior thesis, it appears that there is never an ideal time to spend a semester abroad. Nonetheless, the Office of International Programs offers students an immense amount of opportunities abroad. The Office’s website also explains that studying abroad is possible, even with the aforementioned obstacles. While studying on campus can be amazing and it is understandable to want to be here for as long as possible, the world is much larger than our 600 acres here in New Jersey.
Spending a semester abroad might not be a viable option for every student for a variety of reasons, whether those be finances, disabilities, or major requirements. Students who are able to study abroad, however, should at least consider it. Living abroad for a semester can open your eyes to the world outside of the United States, and make you realize the U.S. way is not necessarily the “right” way.
Katie Goldman is a first-year from Western Springs, Ill. She can be reached at email@example.com.