I feel so fortunate that my childhood in provided me exposure to all different sorts of cultures, backgrounds and religions. Experiencing many different versions of “normal” is an important part of developing a global perspective. For me, this included seeing the Hindu Shrine at Shrunali’s house , arranging Friday night sleepover plans to accommodate Tammy’s family’s shabbat, and not having any idea what Martin’s family was talking about since they all spoke German at home. And let me tell you how lucky you were if you got to sit near Floremy at lunch! She was likely to trade her lumpia for your fluffernutter. We were able to talk and joke about our cultural difference and I believe that it gave me a greater curiosity about the world and not just an acceptance of, but an appreciation for of any sort of differences.
Studying in Europe provides students with exposure to people with all sorts of background and experiences. English-conducted programs draw students from around the world-not just anglophone countries. It is likely that your roommates and classmates will will be from other countries. The students I have spoken with really value this diversity. They’ve talked about how mealtime turns into a multicultural event, how the classroom discussion truly provide a global perspective, and how the opportunity for travel increases, since they now have contacts (read-free places to stay) in these different places. Though many in the US almost seem afraid to talk about cultural differences, it is a common topic there with friendly joking about it as well. I was hanging out with some students in Finland who were all friends. One of them was Latvian and his friend told me (in front of the Latvian student), “If you really want to make him mad, just say he’s from Russia”. Of course, this was good-natured joking and the Latvian student also laughed while making a joke about how at least none of his family member’s own a fanny pack.
I’ve said before that, in order to be successful as a student in Europe, students need to have cultural curiosity and openness. I recognize that most Americans are not exposed to cultural diversity on a regular basis. How can those students develop the traits needed for success abroad? Here are some suggestions:
1. Try Different Foods: When I was pregnant with Sam, Tom and I were at an Indian restaurant where a family with 2 young daughters was sitting near us. The youngest, who was probably around 3 years old was grumbling about the appearance of one of the dishes. The older sister, probably around 5 years old, sweetly reminded her, “If you want to travel the world, you have to try different foods!” Tom and I thought that was the coolest thing ever and made it our mission to implement that policy with our own kids. Try out different foods as a family. If you don’t live in an area with good ethnic restaurants, get some cookbooks from countries of interest and try a recipe yourself. You’d be surprised how many obscure ingredients can be bought on Amazon.
2. Seek out cultural festivals in your area. This is a great way to experience food and traditions of other cultures. These are often listed in the local paper.
3. Use the internet, books, and TV. I was recently re-reading The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank in preparation for a trip to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. I was shocked at how many issues/thoughts/complaints my own 12-year-old American daughter has in common with a 13-year-old German/Dutch girl in hiding from the Nazi’s in the 1940’s. You may be surprised at how many commonalities you have with people who initially seem very different. On a lighter note, I love watching House Hunters International before travel to get an idea of what life is like.
4. Don’t worry sports fans! Just because college sports aren’t like they are here, doesn’t mean you will miss out. Basketball is the most popular sport in many countries, soccer (don’t forget to call it football!) is, of course, huge in many areas, and ice hockey is the most popular sport in Scandinavia. If you can’t find European teams on one of the hundred sports channels, check it out online.
5. Airbnb: Discovering airbnb changed the way I travel. Not only is it much cheaper than hotels, but now I stay in residential areas when I travel. This gives a real feel how one would live in the country, as opposed to how one would be a tourist in the country. When I visit schools in Eastern Europe this winter, I am excited to try a site I recently found that offers meals made up of regional specialties cooked by and eaten with locals.
The benefits of earning a degree in Europe are numerous. In addition to the financial savings, this option can provide students with critical thinking skills, global experiences, language skills and greater job prospects. I truly believe this is a fantastic option for students who feel limited by aspects of U.S. higher education possibilities.