“So, why do you want to study abroad?”
“To travel, and because I want to learn about other cultures. I want to get out of my comfort zone, and go someplace really different, really out there, you know?”
“That sounds fantastic. Have you looked into any of our programs? Do you have any idea where you want to study?”
“Yeah, I want to go to Australia, Ireland, or England.”
Ugh. I cringed. Another one.
I worked in my university’s study abroad office for my first year of graduate school in the US. Half of the job was the standard entry level office-monkey work (“Go find Sarah’s application file… no one’s seen it in months. Good luck!”), the other half was much more interesting: my job was to talk to students about our different programs and try to inspire them to travel the world. It was great work for me – I had been passionately encouraging people to travel since the day I got back from my first trip, and now I was actually getting paid for it! On the other hand, talking to students regularly left me confused and frustrated.
You see, I worked at quite a large university, so there were well over a hundred programs to choose from – if you put them end to end, it was an entire lifetime worth of traveling. Students could study in Africa, Asia, Europe, Australia, the Americas – basically anywhere but Antarctica. Over the course of a year, I must have spoken with four or five hundred different people about their options, and yet the conversation nearly always came back to the same sentence: “I want to go to Australia, Ireland or England.”
For the record, there is nothing wrong with Australia, Ireland or England, per se. In fact, there are tons of great reasons to go there. Maybe you’ve always wanted to see the Outback, you have a Guinness obsession, or you’re a lifelong lover of Shakespeare. That’s fine. The thing that was really confusing was how often these locations came up: upwards of eighty or ninety percent of students had them as top choices.
But why? Why were these places always lumped together, and why were students so drawn there? I needed to figure out what they all had in common. So, I made a list.
Things Australia, Ireland, and England have in common:
Okay, okay. Let’s take a step back here before anyone gets too upset. I’m not claiming racism or anything nefarious like that, and you’re welcome to dress the list up however you like (“these are all developed nations with whom Americans have a common language and similar heritage”). The point is, this choice of locations flew in the face of all those statements about wanting to go someplace “really different”. Compared to just about every other country on earth, Australia, Ireland, and England have a heck of a lot in common with the US, a lot more than Ghana, Uruguay or India, for example.
I wanted to dive deeper, and find out why these countries seemed to be the default choices. After a lot of conversation mining, some things began to stand out. These countries had great implicit marketing, for one. Countless books and films take place there. Can you name any movies that are set in Ireland? Probably. What about in Ghana? Probably not any, although Ghana has five times as many people. Because of all of this exposure, students skimming the list of locations felt that they ‘knew’ some places already, and they tended to give the ‘known’ places preference over those that were ‘unknowns’.
The way “non-Western” locations are portrayed in the media didn’t help either – many students balked if I mentioned African countries, under the assumption that the entire continent was a warzone and that they would have to live in a mud hut for six months. They shied away from Mexico because of the border drug war, even though they would gladly go to Las Vegas – which is about the same distance from the conflict. Americans aren’t alone in these irrational fears, either, as people from more than a few countries have told me they’re afraid to visit the US because of gang violence, ignoring the fact that most Americans have never even seen a gang member.
Language was the final big factor in narrowing down the list, eliminating many of the countries that students ‘knew’ and considered to be safe. Students assumed they needed fluency in the country’s language to study there. In fact, it’s totally reasonable to assume that a university will teach in its country’s native language. Of course, that’s not always the case. What I found confusing was that after looking at the dozens of countries on our list, they rarely seemed to ask themselves, “If you have to speak the language, who the heck are they sending to Hungary and Estonia?”
So there it is, mystery solved: Australia, Ireland, and England came up first because they were ‘known’, ‘safe,’ and English was the national language. If you allow yourself to jump to the same conclusions, then this story is not about how to expand your options, but about how to limit them.
Assumptions can cripple your ability to experience the world for what it is, and in the case of many of these students, as it led them to throw away 98% of potential destinations without a second glance. Of course, it’s definitely not a good idea to approach life this way: if travel is about expanding your mind, it’s counterproductive to disavow entire countries or even entire continents based solely on preconceptions.
When you consider where you are going to study abroad, I encourage you to start with the full list of options and narrow it down slowly. If you enter the selection process with a short list already in your head, you are probably throwing away some great opportunities.
Choose the criteria for what you want to get from the experience before you even consider the location, and then look carefully at your choices. Is learning French your top priority? Consider the entire Francophone world, not just France. Do you want to spend lots of time outdoors? Don’t immediately disregard the megacities without some research – Hong Kong is made up of 70% national parks, and the caving and mountaineering clubs in Istanbul can get you into the wilderness every weekend. Do you want to go to Asia but hate the idea of living in an overcrowded place with no elbow room? Many campuses are spacious, green enclaves where you can retreat from the chaos and relax in comfort.
The world is much bigger than we think, and it does not serve well to cast aside any place without giving it a deeper look. Well-seasoned travelers will admit that even they are constantly surprised by things which defy their expectations. Expand your options, don’t limit yourself, and try to find a place that will challenge you. Try to remember that travel starts at home, with the deliberate choice to try and see the world through untainted eyes. If you succeed in doing this, the world is open to you: you have already become a traveler.