American Students Abroad: Culturally Savvy or Road to Tragedy?

The basic message of this post is: The grass isn’t always greener on the other side.

As this is my third time studying abroad, I’ve been a member of 3 different student group experiences while abroad. I’ve seen my friends go from falling in love with their new home to absolutely resenting living in another country, and everything in between. I myself have experienced the culture shock of moving to a new country twice now and both times have been completely different. Not only do I (mostly) know how my friends in my programs handled moving abroad but I also make it a point to talk to people from other countries and students at Barton who are studying abroad. People are what make traveling special to me, therefore I make it a point to explore their thoughts and the psychology behind it.

I have been provoked over and over again to express my thoughts about this topic because of the following phrases I’ve heard too many times from my fellow American students:

  • “America could never.”
  • “Wow, (insert country here) is so much better than the United States.”
  • “America has nothing as beautiful as this.”
  • “I really wish I wasn’t born in the United States.”
  • Basically saying America sucks and this new country is 94309654 times better.

To preface, there are 4 parts to the Culture Shock Cycle: Honeymoon, Withdrawal, Adjustment, Acceptance. Then, Reverse Culture Shock, which is what you experience when returning home after living away for a while. During the first couple weeks it’s natural for students to fall in love with their new home because it still feels like a vacation; this is the honeymoon stage. Most of the comments that get under my skin are made during this time period, but it really irks me when I hear these comments made when describing their new abroad experience to friends back home and on social media.

Of course, living in a new country is amazing and an experience that’s hard to put into words. However, to sugar coat your experience by saying any of the comments listed above is plain ignorant and is doing yourself, the person you’re talking to, and your country a disservice. This is definitely a strong topic and I have only brought it up to people open-minded enough to receive it.

The only thing you can do is to share your honest observations (**use your brain!!) and urge your friends/family to travel and experience something similar themselves. When I say use your brain I mean to actually share weird or interesting observations/stories/facts you found. This is what makes traveling so special, sharing what it really meant to us with the people who mean a lot to us. If people wanted to hear how beautiful a country was they could visit a tourist page!! If people wanted to hear how their country sucked they could visit any news station nowadays!!

This is one of the reasons I decided to create the first Study Abroad Ambassador position for Barton College. It’s too common for people to sugar coat traveling, studying abroad, or even how their day was with social media and how we talk (should we just call it bragging?) these days. The human connection and honesty will always come out on top. One question a student asked me will always stick out in my head. Very rarely do people ask real questions and it happened to be the second one I’d ever gotten as a study abroad ambassador:

“Have you ever experienced discrimination as an American?”

At first, I was a bit taken aback by this question but I quickly came to an answer which I’m still proud of: “Whenever I have felt discriminated against as an American, or whatever criteria it may be, that’s when I take advantage of the opportunity to put my best foot forward and portray my country, myself, etc. in the light I would want it to be portrayed in for myself and on behalf of my fellow American citizens.

To be frank, I am absolutely appalled by Americans who give into people abroad making fun of our country for whatever reason just because they think they are better than the average American because they have traveled. Newsflash: Although the percentage of our population is half of the percentage of Brits/Aussies who have a passport (36% compared to 70%), Americans still make up a huge part of the international travel sector. Take some pride for the country you grew up in and gave you the freedom to travel internationally. Maybe put some people back on their heels when you share some intellectual thoughts instead of going with the flow. You’re not cooler just because you travel! If you really want to make an impression (or better yet learn something), start a conversation with them about some of your passions or interests. Share good/bad things about your country. Don’t be a robot. Make a friend. Your self-confidence will thank you.

At the end of the day, you will never be happy if you always think the grass is greener on the other side. Traveling is about exploring and learning new things that will make you view your home country differently and understand it more than you ever could’ve before. Check out this post to see what I personally like to share about my abroad experiences 🙂 

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Jeff M Jayne says:

    Great post!


  2. A reflective post! You make some valid points which are true of anyone from anywhere going somewhere else, even a city boy going to live in the countryside! And I suspect that comparing American Traveller x with Other Traveller Y is a bit of a red herring – the population of the US dwarfs most countries so you have to look at percentages and the sheer size and scope of scenery and climates across the US mean that it can take absolutely ages before you feel the urge to see someplace “different” 🙂


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