The role study abroad plays in the academic trajectory of a foreign languages student is a role that is so inseparable and intertwined it seems that one cannot exist without the other. While I believe that the two are linked, I do not believe they are so codependent on one another as universities, students, and even faculty may have one believe. I believe that as academics, we should allow the two subjects to interact, certainly, but it is also our duty to ensure that we can separate the two topics into their own distinct areas.
The purpose of a liberal arts education is to provide a sort of well-roundedness to a student’s education. To say that studying abroad is expected, or even required, to succeed in learning a foreign language, contradicts the foundational beliefs of a liberal arts education, which is that students should be allowed to choose their own path in a variety of studies. There is nothing wrong with studying abroad in practice, but there is something wrong with the way we talk about it, in academic and non-academic circles. There is a stigma attached to studying abroad, be it a summer, semester, or even a year abroad. That stigma is that studying abroad is viewed as being nearly hedonistic, as it is associated with wealth and affluence, which also leads it to being viewed as a glorified vacation. If we create this culture around studying abroad that presents it as elite, something only wealthy students can afford to do, why do we present it as a requirement to complete a foreign language degree? This stigma creates unnecessary pressure on the foreign language student, especially the low-income student and the role of study abroad in a foreign language student’s studies becomes a burden rather than something that should be enriching and educational, and yes, even fun.
The accessibility of study abroad (to all students, studying foreign languages or not) is by and large perceived as a challenge to students who don’t fit a certain mold. In American university culture, and by extension, American culture, the only students who study abroad are affluent, white, and focus more on the “abroad” portion of study abroad. These students are stereotyped as aloof and with a total disregard of their studies.
In order to transform the role of study abroad from an imposing academic stronghold where only the elite are admitted, the conversation around it must change, and it is our job as foreign language and cultures students to change it.
As a low-income student, I find study abroad and university in general to be extremely elite and inaccessible. While this may seem ironic, as I am at an elite university writing about study abroad, I can attest that everything leading up to this moment was nothing short of a long, intimidating, inaccessible process. I will also not say that I speak for all foreign language students, and I most certainly don’t speak for all low-income students. This is not to say that I am ungrateful. I am extremely lucky to be in my current position, but that does not mean that I cannot address the injustices from the inside. The call is most definitely coming from inside the house, and I don’t plan on hanging up anytime soon.