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Op-Ed: If you want to BREW, you should not study abroad

This semester I am studying at a nonprofit organization in Bangalore, India as part of Concordia and Gustavus’ Justice, Peace and Sustainable Communities program. So far, I have studied issues of injustice in great depth both inside and outside the classroom. In addition to some challenging class exercises and discussions, I have visited several slums, a sweatshop and a school for young girls. I’ve also met women forced into sex work and children affected by child labor and child marriage. Experiences like these have made me more aware of the degree to which issues of injustice are structural and interconnected, as well as the role I play in systems of oppression as a middle-upper class white male from the United States.

Meanwhile, I’ve been reflecting on why I originally decided to study in India. It turns out that the main goal of the program — to guide students in identifying and confronting issues of injustice — has led me to believe I should not be in India in the first place. I am convinced that from a U.S. perspective, the institution of study abroad perpetuates imperialism and classism.

I’d like to address a couple important things first. I admit that it took two study abroad experiences (I studied in Norway this summer) to formulate this opinion, so it’s somewhat unfair for me to now say that others should not study abroad. However, as the Nov. 15 deadline approaches, I hope students will take some time to reflect on why they want to study abroad and how various inequalities have allowed them to even consider the option.

Second, this piece was not written to criticize particular individuals who endorse study abroad at Concordia. I’ve had positive experiences with Global Learning and there are several faculty and staff who generously supported my efforts to study abroad. I am grateful for these opportunities, but I think we in the Concordia community should critically assess the institution of study abroad and explore more just alternatives.

To start with, there are non-negotiable economic and environmental costs to studying abroad. Even after scholarships, each program usually costs thousands of dollars. The money and connections required to study abroad is a big reason why most undergraduate students in the world will never have this opportunity. Rather, it is a privilege reserved for the global elite.

In addition to being expensive, flying leaves a huge carbon footprint. According to a 2011 study conducted by Isaac Heath ‘14 and Matt Gantz ‘14, students who studied abroad in 2009 were culpable for 2940 metric tons of emitted carbon dioxide, or about 15 percent of Concordia’s total emissions that year. If all undergraduate students in the world had the opportunity to study abroad, the environmental impact would be devastating.

Because studying abroad is elitist and environmentally destructive, asking why we want to study abroad does not take these immediate costs into consideration. Instead, we should ask why we might need to study abroad. When the conversation is framed this way, it becomes apparent that studying abroad isn’t necessary to receive a great education and that it comes with even more negative consequences than those listed above.

Consider the main reasons why students choose to study abroad: to learn about a topic seemingly unique to that location, to partake in experiential learning, to enhance intercultural competency, to study a language, to get outside of one’s comfort zone, to travel and to have fun. Many of these played a role in my decision to study abroad, and they are all commonly referenced by students, Global Learning, faculty, staff and admissions. However, each of these reasons should be reassessed.

Starting with the first reason, do I need to study in India to learn about ostensibly India-specific issues like caste and Hinduism? The answer is no for a couple reasons. One, these topics can be studied in books, the news, movies, documentaries and even in classes at Concordia.

More importantly, it’s debatable that I need to study topics like these to begin with. There are plenty of examples of “untouchability” in the United States, such as racially segregated neighborhoods, codified discrimination against LGBTQ people and the debate over whether more than 10 million people should be deported because they are not “worthy” of U.S. citizenship. If I want to combat untouchability, I should prioritize issues that affect my community and country instead of fetishizing an example from a country halfway around the world.

Regarding Hinduism, do I plan to give back to the religion or the people who practice it, in a way that will repay them for the information I have taken for myself? No. In fact, there are many subjects in study abroad programs (and academia in general) that privilege the people who get degrees and jobs studying them over the people and places themselves that are studied.

But let’s say there is a universal topic that I’ll learn more about because I’m experiencing it firsthand. In India, poverty is a good example. Sure there’s poverty in the United States, but it’s much worse in India, right?

First of all, the same argument made about studying untouchability applies here. If I haven’t spent time with people experiencing homelessness, or with one of the 50 million Americans who are food insecure, for example, I should not fly to India to learn about poverty.

Second, experiential learning in the context of study abroad doesn’t mean you’re actually “experiencing” what you’re studying. When I’m walking through a slum, I’m not actually experiencing poverty. When I talk to a Dalit (“Untouchable”) about how their low caste and dark skin has restricted their economic opportunities since they were born, I’m not actually experiencing the influence of caste or race on poverty. I’m merely mining for knowledge and walking away while the people I’m learning about continue to suffer. Like the Hinduism example, this is an imperialist approach to education. Alternatively, studying these topics closer to home would make it easier to form reciprocal learning relationships and actually help solve problems I’m concerned about.

“Intercultural competency” is a term used in higher education to capture the importance of interacting with and respecting other cultures. Proponents of this in study abroad ignore that there is plenty of cultural diversity in the United States in terms of class, race, ethnicity, language, religion and even geography. In reality, the concept of “intercultural competency” is a product of globalization and is often code for “understand other cultures to prepare for interacting with them in a business context.” This approach dehumanizes other cultures because the primary motive is economic advancement, not genuine cultural exchange. A domestic focus would result in cultural learning that is more meaningful, more relevant, and less selfish.

Some students study abroad with the explicit purpose of studying a language. I recognize that studying a language in a country where it is widely spoken will improve one’s grasp of that language. However, there are three issues here. First, the other motivations for studying abroad are still at play in language-intensive study abroad programs. Second, languages are often studied in higher education for the same reason that “intercultural competency” is encouraged: to increase status and employment prospects, not to be in true solidarity with native speakers of that language. Third, studying a language in intensive programs and with native speakers is possible in the United States.

The argument about getting outside one’s comfort zone is directly rooted in classism. I have been uncomfortable here because Bangalore, India is different than Moorhead, Minn. However, to suggest that discomfort is necessary for learning is something only comfortable people can afford to say. For those who have grown up facing class inequality, this claim would be considered incomprehensible. But those who have never faced significant difficulties in life can make this claim because they will eventually return to comfort with a fake story of overcoming adversity.

The last two reasons, traveling and fun, are often dismissed by those solely concerned about education, but to deny these as motivating factors is naïve. Plenty of students study abroad at least in part to experience popular tourist destinations, natural landmarks, partying and other privileged activities that most people (including exploited workers in tourist industries) will never have the opportunity to do.

While I’ve only used examples from India, it should be evident how each of these problems manifest themselves in other study abroad programs. Each program offers different courses of study and might emphasize certain things based on location, but all programs can be traced back to the five motivations I outlined. Studying ethnically framed conflict in Rwanda, history in Greece, peace in Norway or studying other topics while abroad reinforces imperialism and classism whether we think about it consciously or not.

Instead of accepting the status quo, we in the Concordia community should discuss how similarly educational and immersive experiences can be facilitated in the United States. We should increase connections with organizations like the Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs, with marginalized communities (e.g. refugee and indigenous populations), nonprofit organizations and more colleges and universities a la the Tri-College consortium. Concordia should also restructure its relationship with Concordia Language Villages to enable more students to study languages intensively without having to leave Minnesota. Each of these options would offer valuable learning opportunities to students, explore a wide range of topics in a U.S. context and would make studying “abroad” more affordable, less environmentally devastating, more equitable and more social justice-oriented.

In summary, what should a critical evaluation of the institution of study abroad look like? First, let’s acknowledge the numerous injustices that are perpetuated when we study abroad. Second, those of us who are considering studying abroad next year should reconsider. Finally, let’s push Global Learning to develop local and just alternatives.

While I have learned a lot from both of my study abroad experiences, engaging in this subject matter in my own country would have been a much better option. In fact, all students would BREW better if they just stayed home.

This article was submitted by Alex Gray, contributing writer.

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