Here’s a piece of contrarian advice: Don’t go abroad for the cultural experience.
In 1600s North America, no one understood hundreds of Native American cultures and languages better than the French fur trappers. The trappers had explored much deeper into the continent than other Europeans. They’d formed friendships with Native peoples, and even married into Native tribes. And they’d had a serious economic purpose: to find beaver pelts for clothing companies in Europe. That purpose had driven them into unfamiliar, alien interactions – and made them experts about a rich and diverse new world.
Most Americans go abroad as tourists. But like the French fur trappers, you can go abroad with a serious independent purpose that naturally draws you into experiencing a new culture. Henry David Thoreau once compared happiness to a butterfly. “The more you chase it,” he wrote, “the more it will elude you. But if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and rest gently on your shoulder.” The fur trappers were focused on their purpose for being abroad – collecting beaver pelts – when the butterfly of foreign languages, cultures and friendships sought them out. The best way to experience a foreign culture is to have a reason to be there.
When I studied abroad at the University of Wuerzburg in Bavaria, we had fun. But when activities weren’t happening, our group grew bored. Our circle of eight American students often went out to bars together. We rarely engaged – we had no reason to – with German students and the university community. In retrospect, we lacked a purpose to drive our experience. We were tourists.
Now when I go abroad I look for a purpose that, like the fur trappers, naturally guides me to language acquisition, cultural knowledge, experiences, and international friendships. I know that a serious reason to be there (studying, volunteering or working) will draw me in and naturally marinate me in a foreign culture.
Take the example of Boston University’s engineering program in Dresden. An international student who studies engineering in Dresden also incidentally, but far from insignificantly, learns the German language and Germany’s culture. His engineering course requirements naturally draw him into the world of German science, Dresden’s university scene, German Verbindungen (fraternities) and outings with his fellow classmates. Meeting with his TA becomes an opportunity to force him to practice German. Studying for his Calculus mid-term becomes an excuse to drink beers with the Germans in his study group.
This article is the introduction and first in an occasional series we’ll be doing here at RateMyStudyAbroad.com called Go Abroad with a Serious Purpose. The series explores stories, opinions and thoughts about purposeful study abroad trips that go beyond tourism and vacationing. The students and program administrators we meet and introduce to you in this series are the “fur trappers” of the study abroad world: people who understand that having a serious outside reason to study, work or volunteer in a foreign country is the most powerful way to learn a language or to experience a culture.
As a side note you can read details about Boston University’s Engineering Program in Dresden – and more programs like it – at GoAbroad.com’s BU Dresden page; and here you can read 6 student RateMyStudyAbroad.com reviews about it.