Sent From My iPhone: A Famous American and a Semester at Home

Opinion by Peter McDonald
Jan. 5, 2011, 12:13 a.m.

Sent From My iPhone: A Famous American and a Semester at HomeI’m fresh off the plane from Miami, but it looks like you scoundrels have already started winter quarter without me. Since nobody here really cares about basketball, perhaps the most significant moments of the quarter come from the arrival and departure of your closest friends/distant acquaintances to and from the Bing Overseas Studies Program (now on six continents!) and all their exciting stories about what they have done/are going to do. I think the current number is at 50 percent of Stanford graduates, compared to the 4-percent national average, so clearly you guys love getting the eff out. Stuff White People Like calls studying abroad “one of the most important parts of a well-rounded college education,” and the BOSP website seems to agree, calling it “the chance of a lifetime.” However, for any place that’s not Oxford, the paltry level of academic engagement will bring flashbacks to eighth grade, or so I’ve been told. So, I ask, what evidence is there that study abroad programs are any nobler than taking a quarter off to “study for the MCATs?”

The BOSP website puts forth that the best reasons to study abroad, aside from the cynical appeal of “career-enhancing experience,” are the chance to make new friends, to master a language, to get inspiration for that honors thesis (you know, the one you have to do to prove you’re not stupid) or to gain academic/personal perspective. You really don’t have to spend a quarter in Paris to do any of this. If you want to make new friends, talk to more people. You can go to east L.A. to work on your Spanish, Canada to work on your French, anime cons to work on your Japanese and Chinatown to work on your Chinese; you don’t need to work on your German or Italian. If you’re looking for honors thesis inspiration, hallucinogens are a lot cheaper. Same thing for personal/academic perspective, though you might want to throw in a book or two about colonial and/or feminist theory as well, or substitute with a year in Americorp. Also, it’s 2011 in this globalized, flat, digitized world. There is very little knowledge you will gain in your tenure abroad that you could only gain by sitting in the classroom at that university. As far as I can understand, the only reason to study abroad is for the cultural experience.

And that’s precisely what bugs me about the whole thing. Stanford’s diversity is perhaps its biggest selling point, but after a year or two, it’s just not good enough. You need “to get out of the Stanford bubble” is what I hear. Really? After nine consecutive quarters here, I still am just starting to appreciate this place. Of course I would probably do well to remember the similarities that Stanford has to the insular prep schools that most of you attended, so I can understand your still pressing desire to be around real live ethnic/dark/poor people. Though in true Stanford fashion, your experience abroad still has to come through a filter, with most places offering hermetic dorm housing, forcing you to spend all that money that they said wouldn’t be a deciding factor in order to actually have the cultural awakenings they promised. And once you’re awake, what do you learn? All over the world, people are pretty much the same, and they’re all kind of boring and ordinary. Being European or South American doesn’t automatically make you interesting or more enlightened, nor does knowing people from those places.

If I’m really going to be honest, though, the real twinge in my heart that comes from the lionization of studying abroad is how enthusiastic people get about leaving America. Now, I’m no unironic version of Stephen Colbert; in fact, I believe that the Star Spangled Banner’s presence at every single sporting event is in fact fascist. Still, your country is like your family. You may not like it all the time, and it’s certainly got its share of issues, but you’re born into it, so it’s yours. You don’t spend a week at your friend’s house only to come back and rave to your parents how much better their family is, so stop going on about the cafes in Paris or the trains in Berlin. Plenty of legendary writers wrote in coffee shops in Cleveland, too, you know. Also, British people are ugly.

Can your experiences abroad enlighten my myopic worldview? E-mail me at [email protected].

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