When I was considering studying abroad about 6 months ago, I was very intent on picking the right program for me, and invariably visited many websites. Initially I was not entirely convinced that I even wanted to go abroad. I came across one site that had a series of quotes designed to convince students that study abroad was for them, one of which that read, “I will not follow where the path may lead, but I will go where there is no path, and I will leave a trail.” To me, this epitomized the idea of studying abroad. It is not about creating any literal path, but experiencing a whole new way of life, and in doing so carving a new trail in our minds to enhance our ability to understand the world. I had been confined to a singular way of thinking for my entire life, and I yearned for new perspectives.
However, I have come to realize that creating new paths in our minds today is more difficult than simply going abroad. That quote was written by Muriel Strode in her poem Wind-Wafted Wild Flowers in 1903. In 1903, the United States was defined by anti-trust laws and dramatic social change, but also marked one of the final years of American neutrality in foreign affairs. As a result, the notion of traveling and living abroad still carried a very romantic notion. There was no Google to see what the Sagrada Familia looked like in its infancy, or WhatsApp to make sure you could communicate with everyone from home in an instant. When a person traveled abroad in 1903, they truly could find a direction without a path they had traveled, and leave their own trail within the context of their own life.
Globalization has had innumerable positive impacts on this world, from the establishment of international organizations designed to protect the human rights of the entire world population, to the ability to watch the same House of Cards episode in Spain as you can in the United States. However, this sense of global community, which is in many respects a good thing, lessens the number of distinct paths we can chose to go down when we go abroad. Granada in 1905 did not have a Burger King in the main plaza or a Dunkin Donuts to stop by every morning.
For students studying abroad, these places are comfortable, because they are what we know and what we have experience with. If I choose to, I do not have to go down a trail I don’t know, and that would significantly lessen the value of the study abroad experience. This is not to say that BK and Dunkin are the issue in themselves, but in the context of an increasingly homogenous global community we as study abroad students need to be conscious of the decisions we make and constantly make sure that we are not falling into comfortable tendencies. We must always keep our eyes open and look, instead of blindly following what we already know. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in The Hobbit, “There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.”
The world awaits…discover it.