How to Break Through the American Study Abroad Stereotype

Written by Drew October 15, 2015

I apologize in advance if this posts sounds like a rant. However, I ran into one of my biggest study abroad pet peeves this weekend and I wanted to express my feelings toward that situation.

Before getting into the story, here’s a quick update on my life. I finally finished orientation programs and just completed my first travel weekend here. I spent the entire weekend exploring Florence, Italy. Beautiful City. Beautiful culture. It was a phenomenal weekend with some great people.

With my weekend in Florence came my first hostel experience. It was different. Basically, a hostel is set up with several rooms consisting of numerous beds. The entire hostel comprised of an eclectic mix of cultures and backgrounds – something that I loved. This situation provided an opportunity to meet a variety of new people and learn about their backgrounds, thoughts, and viewpoints.

Of course, I thrived in that situation.

Just this weekend I met people from Romania, France, Germany, Argentina, Spain, New Zealand, amongst many other countries. As meeting new people is an absolute passion of mine, it was a thrilling experience that I look forward to in my future trips across Europe.

And then, I met a fellow study abroad student from the United States, and that’s where my biggest study abroad pet peeve kicked in.

See, there’s a stereotype with Americans who study abroad. The stereotype: Americans utilize study abroad as an opportunity to skip a semester of class, travel, and most of all, party. What they don’t do is learn about and appreciate a new country and new culture.

That … is my biggest study abroad pet peeve.

On my last night in Florence, my hostel mates and I congregated on the ground floor of the hostel before going out for the night. 

(And, as a quick side note, if you struggle to meet new people, here’s all you have to do: Grab a beer, cheers someone, and ask where they are from. That’s just about how every conversation during this study abroad trip has started, and it’s an easy way to meet someone.)

Going back to the story, I sparked up a conversation with the student from the United States who is also studying abroad at a different program in Italy this semester.

We talked on and off throughout the evening. Eventually, he brought up his recent trip to Spain.

As a Spanish minor and someone who studied in Spain, I was extremely excited to learn about his Spanish experience. However, he elaborated on his trip as a way to educate me about their culture, but it turns out he had barely experienced anything.

I was extremely embarrassed for a few reasons.

  1. Spain is a country I am very passionate about. I love the language. I love the culture. And, the manner in which he spoke about the country made me very frustrated.
  2. This guy is representing the USA while abroad and reinforcing the generic American study abroad stereotype. 

And, again, that frustrates me. 

For those Americans that are going abroad, please do one thing: Actually learn something about the culture you are living in.

How can you accomplish that? It’s pretty simple, actually.

When you are visiting a different culture or talking to someone from a different country, ask questions. What do you think about this? Why do you do that? People that travel are interested in talking about their culture and learning about yours.

As well as asking questions, if your study abroad program offers a culture or language class (it should), absolutely 100% take it. It’s a great way to hold you accountable to learn about the language and culture of the country that’s hosting your study abroad experience. 

My lengthy rant concludes with one simple message for Americans studying abroad: Don’t follow the study broad stereotype and learn something about a different culture. It will make your study abroad experience that much more worthwhile.