Hannah Carlton and her roommates lived on the second floor of an old apartment building in the middle of Florence, Italy. Their neighbors included several young, professional couples, the mayor of Florence, and an old, cranky lady named Maria. “She was loud, always yelling at us in Italian, and thought we were all a total nuisance.” So it was no surprise to Carlton when they heard a loud knock on the door as they were preparing their Thanksgiving meal. It must be Maria.

Despite minor troubles with neighbors, Carlton says that her study abroad experience was a transformative one. Carlton, who had been to Italy when she was just 12, decided to apply for a scholarship to Florence University of the Arts on a whim. She was attending community college in her hometown of Portland, but was feeling bored and restless. “I had always wanted to live in Italy, so I thought why not?” Carlton received the scholarship she applied for, and, in no time, was headed to Italy.

Colleen Curran spent last summer in the city of Dun Laoghaire (commonly referred to as Dunleary), just outside of Dublin, Ireland. Like Carlton, Curran found that her study abroad experience was full of new experiences and personal growth. Carlton and Curran are just two of hundreds of thousands of U.S. students who choose to spend part of their college experience in a foreign country. According to the institute of International Education, a record 241,791 U.S. students studied abroad during the 2006-2007 academic year. Those numbers are up eight percent from the previous year and nearly 150 percent from the prior decade.


Roger Adkins, Assistant Director of Study Abroad Programs at the University of Oregon, has seen the growth at the University and attributes the change to a cultural shift that is putting more emphasis on the importance of global citizenship. He says that more and more students, parents, and professors are acknowledging the importance of having an intercultural experience. Adkins says that this experience can help students broaden their perspectives, manage a budget, and “engage in difficult and new procedures and processes that require transformation of one's view of oneself, and other skills highly valuable to prospective employers, graduate schools, and society at large.”

Students are studying abroad not only for the experience, but also for the edge that an international perspective can give them in the marketplace. “I think that going abroad is definitely a positive thing to add to your resume. It shows that you have branched out and gained a unique experience,” says Melissa Myers, a University of Oregon student currently studying abroad in London. “Study abroad can definitely give you advantages in your future goals not only because it looks good on a resume but because it could open up new connections.”

Studying abroad can give students a new international perspective, but many students also go through personal transformations and see the experience as a growing-up process. “As our world becomes more globalized, we need to be able to understand other cultures and work together, not against each other,” says Carlton. “I learned so much about myself and how I fit into the world.”

Curran says that her study abroad experience has changed not only her larger perspective on the world, but also her daily routine. “When I was over there it was a much slower pace of life. I didn’t even have a watch or a cell phone with me.” Curran says that she now takes things less seriously and is more relaxed. “I feel much more in tune with myself. After coming home, I set five-year goals and ten-year goals for myself. It made me much more realistic.” Curran credits this transformation to the intercultural exchange that comes with living abroad. “I think that any time you expose yourself to different cultures, it makes you more down to earth and in tune with everything around you.”

Personal growth while studying abroad is a common experience for students, but Adkins emphasizes that not all students may be mentally prepared for the cultural change. “Some students are ill-prepared for the intensity of the study-abroad experience or would be unable to engage with another culture in a respectful manner.  It is advisable for students to prepare themselves before setting out on a study abroad program.”

For Myers, studying abroad was a risky decision. “The first night I was here I cried myself to sleep questioning if I had made the right decision in leaving what I knew and coming to a foreign country. I already was going to a school nine hours away from home and now I was across the ocean.” While it took a few days for her to adjust, Myers says she is now fully enjoying her experience and feels comfortable in her city. “London became my home very quickly. I imagined my study abroad experience to seem so foreign and out of this world, but it really feels normal, and what I am doing on a daily basis is exactly what I should be doing on that given day.”

Curran says that she adjusted well to her life in Ireland because she tried to go into the experience without any expectations. She found that the city of Dublin was similar to American cities, but her town of Dun Laoghaire was a bit more old-fashioned. “It was a throwback a few years. I didn’t expect that and I think that’s why I loved it as much as I did.”

While studying abroad is an experience that relatively few get to have, many students who are privileged enough to partake find that the experience serves as a rite of passage. Myers says that it would be hard for her to even explain her experience to someone who has not traveled abroad. “It is hard to explain the different feelings you have in another country and how different it is from school at home,” says Myers. “If you do study abroad there is no way you will forget your experience. It is always something that will stay with you and, like anything in your life, will help you shape into the person you are.”

“I think it depends on the person whether or not it is a rite of passage. It definitely was for me. The reason I chose to go to Ireland was because my family is Irish. I went not only for the experience, but also to get a sense of my own cultural identity,” says Curran, whose grandmother was born in Ireland. While in Dublin, Curran traced her family’s name back to the 1200s and found all the nuanced variations of the name. For Curran, this moment was an important rite of passage and one of the best experiences of her time abroad.

Adkins, who studied abroad for a summer in Iceland, says that it was an “utterly transformative experience,” for him, as it is for so many others. “I learned a great deal about myself, about my "Americanness," about the wide-open possibilities for how cultures can organize and understand human experience.” Rogers says that he changed during his experience because he internalized many aspects of his host culture. “This "hybridization" experience is a very interesting one. It makes us the kind of people who can more easily see through cross-cultural misunderstandings - at least, we can see how each side could be coming from radically different points-of-view, and thus, why the conflict arises.”

Rogers sees this “hybridization” as an important part of creating a country of global citizens.
He argues that people who have studied abroad are more prepared to handle and understand the global conflicts that surround us. “We are more easily able to adapt to and negotiate unfamiliar situations.  The world needs more of us, especially in the U.S., which remains largely a monocultural and monolithic presence in the world in spite of our great internal diversity.” Carlton agrees and says that her study abroad experience reinforced the perspective she had about cultural conflict. “It showed me how connected we all are, how much we need to work together, and how we need to appreciate other cultures instead of persecute them.”

While study abroad is not a rite of passage for everyone, it can benefit students in a multitude of ways. Whether it is getting out of a comfort zone, learning about another culture, or learning about oneself, the experience seems to be a transformative one for each student in a different way. The experience of living in a foreign country for any amount of time can give students a fresh perspective and an increased awareness of other cultures.

“I can’t believe that I spent an entire summer in a pub,” Curran giggles. Her experience has inspired her to continue to build ties with her family’s ancestral home. Curran discovered that because she is second-generation Irish-American, it is be possible for her to obtain dual-citizenship. Curran plans to take advantage of this and spend more time in her study abroad country. “I am planning to move there for two years of my life.”

Carlton says that her experience was more than she could have ever asked for. Even old lady Maria came around. On that Thanksgiving, Maria came upstairs to yell at the girls in Italian that they were being too loud. The girls opened the door, and Maria saw the full Thanksgiving feast laid out on the table. “Oh! I am so happy!” said Maria, in Italian, as she hugged and kissed all the girls. Language barrier still intact, the joy of celebrating an American holiday brought four American girls and an old Italian woman together. Carlton says that her experience “really enforced my idea that we are all so similar, no matter where we come from.”

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