When I came to college, there was only really one thing I knew I wanted to do. I mean, I knew I wanted to study English kind of and probably become a teacher, but in terms of being really sure, only one thing. That thing was to study abroad. And I didn’t just want to do a summer program or a winter program, I wanted to live somewhere not American for at least a semester. I wanted to do this for three reasons:
- I dreamed of becoming bilingual one day.
- I knew there was more to life than suburban America.
- Once I got out of suburban America (which had traveled down with me to the U of I), I knew I’d probably learn a few more things that I knew for sure about the world and about my life.
I should note, all of these reasons were validated.
It wasn’t easy being able to take semester off of my major studies, however. Coming back, I cannot believe that it was made so difficult for me. I understand how complicated master schedules are (I work in a middle school where teachers do the scheduling), but coming back, I couldn’t believe that more people weren’t pushing for Secondary Ed students to study abroad. The experiences I gained were INVALUABLE, and truly could only be accomplished by actually studying abroad.
Here are some of the reasons I think any and all Teacher Candidates should CLAW their way into a study abroad program for as long as they can get away, and why Teacher Education programs should encourage their candidates to do it:
- You jump full feet into a culture you don’t understand.
When you start teaching, even if you go back to the high school you went to, more often than not there is going to be at least one student that you teach that feels out of place–whether because of where they’re from, their abilities, who they associate with, what they look like, what language or dialect they speak at home, etc.–and it is critical that you understand what they’re up against. Most likely, you will have large pockets of these kids. And if you teach in a school in an area unlike where you grew up in, YOU will probably be one of these people that feel out of place.
With this experience in your pocket, you will have a better understanding of how to handle the students that do not identify with your cultural values–or at the very least acknowledge the difference between your values and theirs as something just different, not right or wrong. Check out this cultural inventory from the University of Minnesota to see what cultural values you might already be taking for granted.
- If you’ve never experienced it, it shows you what it feels like to have a handicap
Studying abroad provided me the opportunity to know what it feels like to be chronically misunderstood. I took a class at a Costa Rican University, in which I was one of two students that was not Costa Rican. Most classes, I left with my head spinning, my self-esteem battered, and overwhelming stress at the thought of completing a homework assignment I only vaguely understood or that would take me literally dozens of hours more than the rest of the students because of my lingual handicap. It wasn’t because I was stupid, it was because nobody could explain the concepts in a way that I understood, no matter how hard I tried to form my questions. And even when I did, I’d usually get pitying smiles from the professor and other students, which I HATED. I wanted to shout, I’M NOT STUPID, you all just don’t understand ME.
How many students do you think you’ll have that will have similar struggles in your class? I’ll give you a hint…TONS. If you are like a majority of pre-service teachers, you went into teaching because you were good at school and the way it was operated. It is absolutely critical that you experience what it’s like to not be good at it, and study abroad does a nice way of kicking you down there.
- You have the opportunity to learn another language
That language might be useful to your school. I am one of….maybe 2 teachers that speak Spanish in my school. Sure most teachers took Spanish in high school, but no one gained the confidence of actually functionally using it.
Even if you don’t learn a language found as commonly in the US like Spanish, you learn what it’s LIKE to learn a language. Which makes English both make more sense and less sense at the same time, which in turn helps you understand where your students are coming from (even when they are native speakers of English).
You also now know what it feels like to not sound smart, even if you are smart–which is possibly one of the most frustrating things to experience when meeting new people or, like, trying to learn something. You know, all things that happen when you’re in a new class at a new middle school with a new teacher and newly teenaged, highly critical friends to make.
- You have awesome stories to tell your students about why to go to college
This is a picture of a collage of pictures of me from college that I made as part of our effort to teach kids what college can be like. Yes, the entire right-hand side is about the one semester I spent abroad, and it also happens to be the part I get the most questions about from my students. Many students know college opens up opportunities, but many don’t realize that college could open the opportunity for getting out of the country for the first time. Educate them!
- It opens doors for you BEFORE you’re on the teaching job search.
After studying abroad, I had two more years of college. I applied for more scholarships, educational trips, and better part-time jobs when I came back, and had tons more to say in my interviews than most of my non-studying abroad competition. While they were trudging to class in Champaign and going out on the weekends, I was volunteering to teach English as a second language, learning a new language, and working in a center for helping women out of sex-trafficking. I saved money during studying abroad (it was CHEAPER than staying in Champaign and paying tuition in Champaign) AND was able to make more money when I came back doing jobs that were more applicable to what I wanted to do. I also was able to work education-related jobs and gain more valuable teaching experience because of what I could brag about from study abroad. Which takes me to number 6.
- It opens more doors once you ARE on the teaching job search.
Number 5 and number 6 are the best-kept secret benefits of study abroad. My experiences from study abroad made it easier to get jobs and opportunities in the time after I was abroad and before I graduated, which served as amazing resume-padders once I did graduate and go on the teaching job search. Not just the experiences I had studying abroad but AFTER I did made me stand out in the search, so I had plenty to say during my teaching interviews.
Study abroad truly is an opportunity that snowballs.
- You learn the process of culture shock.
You also have a better understanding of the process of learning about someone else’s culture. I started teaching in a district with a very different demographic than what I grew up with. Even though I was surrounded with a culture that I had never experienced before, I knew how to identify the phases I was going through, ask questions to learn more, remember that I was the student in this new culture, not the judge, and to be patient. I was uncomfortable in the beginning–that wasn’t because there was something wrong with these kids or parents, but because I had more to learn. I felt depressed in the middle of my first year–again, not a sign I should leave, but a sign that I was starting to process the world around me. I feel comfortable now, and I knew I would after I gave it time and tried to understand what was going on around me. I knew this from studying abroad.
- You grow resilience
There are a lot of joyful parts of study abroad, but there are also a lot of dark times. You take a dive into the unknown, and whether you like it or not, are committed to sticking with it by yourself for the full term. A lot of that is like your first year(s) in teaching. There are a lot of joyful moments, but especially in the beginning, it can be really dark, really lonely, and really disheartening. There are many times you forget why you started it in the first place. It helped me a lot to have learned
- You are forced to find stability in your self-identity
When I came back from study abroad, a strange thing happened. When I walked around in public, I was suddenly very aware of my feminine status. I was also very aware of my values and my confidence in my own judgment. I sat down one day and suddenly realized: the basis for my identity had shifted.
Up until study abroad, I had been surrounded by activities, programs, and people to set my identity. I was an English major, I was a member of this club, I was friends with these people, I lived in this dorm. These activities and commitments, I hadn’t realized until I went abroad, had defined my self-identity.
When you study abroad, however, all of your friends, activities, and “tracks” are stripped away from you, and you’re left with just yourself–a lot like how it feels like to graduate college and move onto the real world. I got done with that soul-searching while abroad, so I was able to dive full-force into my teaching career. Now, I identified as a woman with values and a brain. Seems obvious and basic, but it was so much more stable than the convoluted identity I had left behind. It was also translatable to the staff, students, and families I worked with.
- You gain an overall amazing life experience
I don’t think I need to explain this one. You have to get yourself out of a lot of tricky situations when you’re abroad, and get to see and meet so many more beautiful people and places of the world that you wouldn’t have had you stuck with the program. It gives you a global mindset in a global education world. Studying abroad is WORTH IT, and I would argue NECESSARY for people that are going to be educating our future world leaders.