By Tiana Miller-Leonard (Mama Hope Intern)
Having just finished my freshman year of college, I have found that the best thing about attending an American university is the wealth of resources that are now available to me. While I cannot speak for every school in the country, I know that many of them have this in common: they provide students with opportunities to learn outside of the classroom. At UCSB, for example, I am able to engage in new extracurricular activities like tennis and journalism; give back to the community with beach cleanups, fundraisers, and tutoring programs; attend dozens of lectures from visiting professors or other interesting people; and, of course, study abroad.
Studying abroad is perhaps one of the most worthwhile things a student can do during their years in school. I was lucky enough to study abroad in high school and I learned an enormous amount about myself and the world in doing so. I lived in a small town on the countryside in Normandy, France, where I stayed with a family and went to a French high school. In addition to learning the language, I gained self-assurance and a sense of independence, which have helped me in every new phase of my life (like starting college!). I also began to understand how each culture works like a jigsaw puzzle: one individual custom or tradition may seem unusual, but it makes sense within the greater cultural context. I learned that French culture is no better or worse than American culture–just different.
Immersing yourself in a new environment not only gives you a better understanding and appreciation for that place, but also sparks new analysis about your own culture. It teaches open-mindedness and respect for differences, independence, and confidence in a person’s ability to navigate an entirely new environment.
You have to ask yourself several questions in order to figure out the best study abroad program for you. As I intend to study abroad again while at UCSB, I have thought long and hard about these questions and decided on a semester abroad in Senegal. I hope to travel there fall of my junior year. In sharing a little bit about my decision making process, I hope to help people with their own decisions and maybe even inspire them to take a crack at Africa.
First, you must consider your own academic goals. Which places are most compatible with your major? I am lucky in that my history major can take me anywhere, but certain areas of study (especially in math and science) require more consideration. It might also be helpful to think about how the program will prepare you for future work opportunities.
Next, think about what you want to gain from the experience on a personal level. Fluency in another language? London might not be the right choice. If you want to understand the daily life of the people in your country of choice, programs with a home stay might be better. However, if you are looking to become a more independent person you might want something with more freedom, like living in dorms or apartments. Different countries offer different living conditions. If I were going to study abroad in France again I would choose to live independently, but since part of my goal in going to Senegal is deeper understanding of Senegalese culture, I want to live with a family learn about how they get by from day to day.
Another important consideration for studying abroad is the kind of experiences outside of the classroom that are offered. Some programs have more of an emphasis on learning about the culture than others that are more academically aimed. The UC program in Senegal has a community service component to it, which is important to me because I want to give back in some way. Other programs also offer excursions to parts of the country outside your area of residence. Traveling around can enrich one’s sense of the country as a whole.
Ultimately, the choice in where and how to study abroad relates to one’s personal goals and personality. I believe that anywhere in the world can offer a life-changing experience.
Here are some of the reasons I am choosing to travel to Senegal:
-As a French-speaking country, Senegal will allow me to practice and improve my French while receiving a completely different experience than I would in France. It will be unlike anything I have done before but there will still be the familiarity of language.
-I love history. I feel that African history has not been adequately represented in my world history courses and I want to learn more. Rather than learning the West’s perspective on Africa, I want to live there and learn on location.
-Even though I deeply believe that the way Africa is portrayed in the media is flawed, it is hard to disassociate the images of poverty, war, and suffering from a continent that is also filled so much rich culture that we don’t get to learn about. I figure the best way to actually stop the pity is to go live in West Africa meet the beautiful and inspiring people that I’m sure I will meet.
-Finally, the community service aspect of the program in Senegal is not offered in many other countries. I have been incredibly fortunate to travel very much in my life, but I have never used my ability to travel to do something worthwhile for the communities I’m traveling to–my travel has always been for my own personal gain. I want to give back somehow.
Study abroad should not be something to fear. The world is so much bigger than America–there is so much to see and so much to learn! I really encourage everyone to take advantage of the opportunity to live somewhere else, and to challenge themselves by trying a completely different (and maybe daunting) environment such as West Africa.