I’ve always expected that studying abroad would teach me lessons and shift my perspective somehow. All I’ve ever known is life in the States, so spending some significant time in another part of the world is something I’ve perpetually dreamt of and am so fortunate to be experiencing now.
Shortly after I arrived in Madrid, Hurricane Ida hit New Orleans and surrounding areas, causing mass destruction, power outages, and devastating loss for countless communities. While I was feeling guilty for being off in another country while my favorite city scrambled to pick up its pieces, some of my new international classmates asked us Tulane students about the hurricane, our friends, and our school. I was beyond surprised. I didn’t expect someone from Holland or France to know much about American news. Comparing this to the United States, in which I was sure many were completely unaware of Ida, I started to question why my European peers were so much more aware of foreign politics than most of my American friends and I.
I became much more aware of my new surroundings, and after only a few days of hearing similar comments from social cab drivers, curious classmates, and new friends, it became obvious that the people around me knew more about American politics than most Americans. People asked me about Trump and Biden regarding the election and many even brought up the Space Needle when I said I’m from Seattle. Practically every state and city is known. I started to question why I don’t know more about what’s going on in other countries, and why as much as I try to check the news, I probably only ever read about major events. This realization is something I am already grateful for and something I decided to work on during my time abroad.
Out of curiosity I started researching and found out that nearly 4 in 10 Americans incorrectly said that the Constitution gives the president the power to declare war and just over half (54%) knew that the Constitution actually gives Congress the power to declare war. Unfortunately, a new survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania reports that things aren’t improving; just a quarter of Americans in the nationally representative survey could name all three branches of government — the worst showing on that question in six years. And here’s the real kicker: nearly a third of Americans couldn’tt name a single branch of their government.
Another study by National Geographic surveyed 1,203 Americans aged 18 to 26-years-old who had recently attended an American University, in a series of 75 different questions about global politics and geography. The survey found that the total percent of correct responses from all respondents was just 55 percent. And yet, 86 percent of respondents said they consider themselves at or above average in terms of knowledge about global affairs.
I’ve noticed that EU students have a very strong understanding of global politics and business. I’m studying at a business school in Spain and often find myself unable to draw the same comparisons many EU students do with ease due to their well rounded knowledge of global news and international practices. Not to mention, the classes are all in English. Many European countries require students to learn either one or two foreign languages, with language classes starting as early as the age of three. I, for one, didn’t start a formal education in foreign language until middle school. It’s obvious, but I’ll tell you why: because as Americans, we know English will be spoken almost anywhere we go!
The people around us in the places we go while abroad spend their lives studying not only their own language and political situation, but also ours. Americans aren’t as aware of the political happenings of the countries we visit and it’s rare to know the language unless we studied it in school. I’ve come to realize I need to spend more time learning about a country, its politics, its culture, and its language before I hop on a budget airline flight and spend a weekend touring a city.
Changing this integrated part of our culture is easier said than done, but going abroad and making an effort is a good place to start. Take classes about other countries’ history and politics, learn languages and teach our young kids new languages, and meet different people with backgrounds much different than ours. It’s important to remember we won’t leave a country after four months knowing every politician and member of parliament’s name, but we can make an effort to travel outside of our bubbles. Even try asking a local stranger for recommendations while you’re there. You’ll probably make a new friend and learn something you never would’ve found on TripAdvisor!
Cover Photo: AIFS Study Abroad