University News

Study abroad challenges social expectations, proves formative experience

Students experience personal growth, find independence while in foreign countries

Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Students in France, Spain, Denmark and Ecuador agree that studying abroad forges an ability to be independent in a way that the Brown community does not. Students often live alone and must overcome language barriers.

More than halfway through the semester, many Brown students scattered across the world are reaching the same realization: Living as an international student teaches unparalleled independence.

Students in France, Spain, Ecuador, Denmark and Argentina all identified living alone, traveling alone and cooking daily meals as central to their personal growth. “Specifically in Paris, I really don’t feel like a student. I’m more just living in the city,” said Henry Ritter ’18, a former Herald sales director. No student housing is provided, and Ritter lives alone in an apartment, takes the metro to class and buys his own groceries.

Allie Tsuchiya ’18, who is studying in Copenhagen, Denmark, echoed the sentiment. “I’m learning to be alone, and I love it,” she said.

In Barcelona, Spain, Pieter Brower ’18 has found independence to be more than just a practical learning experience. “I’ve learned to assert myself and my identity. I didn’t come into this with close friends, and I think finding my space and developing relationships has been the most formative thing,” he said. “I feel like I’ve grown a lot as a person on my own.”

For some students, independence extends to the classroom, where foreign institutions generally force students to fend for themselves. A number of students described classroom environments with minimal student interaction and a primary focus on the professor, which has been an adjustment for some.

“I manage my time myself, I have no academic adviser, I meet people on my own and I’m speaking Spanish 90 percent of the time,” said Amalia Perez ’18, who is currently studying in Buenos Aires, Argentina. While she loves the newfound independence both in the city and in the classroom, she would not recommend studying abroad to those who do not thrive independently or believe they are unprepared to learn to do so, she added.

Friendships abroad

Developing friendships and a social life abroad can be unexpectedly challenging for many students. “Socially it’s tough sometimes. You just don’t have a huge base of support like at Brown,” Ritter said. “When you’re in a culture that speaks a different language, there are limits to how involved you can be.” The distance and lack of centralized student housing make it particularly difficult to connect outside of class, as “most (French students) live at home with their parents or in the suburbs,” Ritter added.

Jake Gogats ’18 is studying in Ecuador and has decided to stay abroad for another semester partially to continue to develop his relationships with native speakers. A majority of students abroad in Ecuador primarily associate with others in their program, students from the United States and Europe and English-speaking Ecuadorians, Gogats said. “A very small percentage of the people from outside Ecuador have a group of friends who are just Spanish speaking,” he said. “I had to stop feeling bad that I didn’t have that.”

Natalie Tsang ’18, also studying in Paris, has found that her closest friends are primarily American or European. While she wishes this was not the case, friendships developed in the classroom do not usually translate well outside of that environment, she said.

Tsuchiya agreed, adding that while she is close with her host family and will stay in touch when she returns to the United States, she doubts her new friendships will survive her return to Brown.

“I have best friends around the world now, but I wouldn’t necessarily attribute it to study abroad,” Perez said. While she currently takes classes through a study abroad program, Perez moved to Argentina over the summer to work for the Inter-American Development Bank. She attributes most of her personal growth, friendships and comfort in Argentina to having moved to the country beforehand and spending months adapting to the city without the aid of what she calls “the study abroad bubble.”

Finding love (or not) overseas

Both romantic relationships and hookup culture in different countries have challenged students’ initial expectations. In Paris, Ritter acknowledged that the language barrier and cultural differences make relationships difficult. “There are some girls who are super flirty, and it’s funny because I have no ability to flirt in French, let alone be smooth in some social context. And you need to have a lot of cultural context,” he said.

Other students said they have found European hookup culture liberating, as Tinder and casual hookups are generally simpler and easier than they are at Brown. Brower is currently dating a figure skater, he said.

In Latin America, the presence of machismo makes relationships challenging for women, Perez said. “Relationships with men are difficult,” she added. “Machismo is real and profound. I’m much more conscious of who(m) I interact with and how I go into things.”

Cultural conservatism in Ecuador has also affected Gogats, who was warned that he might be harassed for dating men. “Obviously, I don’t tell my host family that I’m dating men,” he said. While public displays of affection are very common in Ecuador for straight couples, they are virtually nonexistent for gay couples, he added. “I don’t hold hands with someone in the daylight,” Gogats said, adding that he has yet to experience harassment in spite of the warnings.

Coming home

While almost every student expressed enjoyment of their study abroad experiences, most are excited to return to Brown and have developed renewed appreciation for its social fabric and challenging academics. Students said that the months abroad will allow them to approach the remainder of their education with maturity and an appreciation for their identity and education.

Distance from Brown allows you to evaluate who you are and what you value, Tsang said. “Study abroad really allowed me to see who I am and what I enjoy and the kind of people I want in my life,” she added.

“Being abroad has prepared me for life after college,” Perez said. “I’m much more confident walking around the world.”

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