By Sandra Riano
This past summer I had the privilege to participate in a study abroad program at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia. I examined the armed conflict, peace process, and peace negotiations amongst a group of international peers. Personally, as a dual citizen, I felt far removed from the political, cultural, and social fabric of my home country. I saw this study abroad opportunity as the perfect way to get in touch with Colombia and hone my research skills. At least, that’s what I thought–in reality, my study abroad experience gave me so much more than I could have ever imagined.
Although I had visited Colombia before and felt comfortable with the language and culture, I felt like a foreigner in my own country. This was the first time I traveled there alone and the experience was challenging but rewarding. My time spent writing about what I was learning and experiencing helped me crystallize my socio-political analysis of Colombia’s current events. I gained invaluable blogger and web building experience that I would later use to land a summer internship with a women’s nonprofit. Your study abroad experience is what you make it, inside and outside the classroom.
The rewards of learning in another country are plentiful but I will crystallize a few for you. Firstly, you become exposed to different teaching styles which in turn inspire new learning styles you didn’t know you could develop before. The United States has a very creative, yet regimented, style of instruction in where most professors will teach exclusively within their field. What I found in Colombia was that professors across all disciplines were incredibly interdisciplinary in their work. A women’s studies professor examining the gendered aspects of the armed conflict might rely heavily on economic analysis to draw conclusions about feminist theory. Further, a professor examining the impact of the peace process on the environment might use historically charged notions of law and order to explain why or why not a community in developing part of the country might be receptive or reactive to environmental policy. This interdisciplinary style of teaching can be very demanding but the reward is in gaining a new perspective through which to analyze historical, political, or economic issues.
Outside of the classroom, you could expect that the experiences one is able to have in food and culture are unimaginable. Even as a citizen of Colombia, I ate and experienced new cultural traditions for the first time. Not to mention that you have a group of international friends undergoing these experiences with you. I made friends from Kenya, Wales, Lebanon, France, Luxembourg, and Russia to name a few. So while we were all connected to our academic experience in Colombia, we also gained perspective from the melting pot of all the cultures and nationalities within our group. I can not stress how rewarding it is to expand your conception of the world around you because there are so many things we have yet to discover and understand. Culture remains one of these delicate and complex structures that governs around the world very differently depending on the nation it is being practiced in. How truly rewarding is it to scratch the surface on understanding all of the threads that pull us together and the unique things that differentiate us.
Lastly, while my trip was chalk full of rewarding and enlightening experiences I had plenty of time to reflect on my privileges and power. Education is not accessible to most, and within countries like Colombia, the opportunity gap is extraordinarily magnified. However, we can all take some initiative in learning about the world around us by doing independent research, forging international friendships through penmanship, and building tolerance and respect for other cultures. In this way, we all have the ability to get a taste for something to challenge our perceptions about the world we live in.
Sandra Riano is the Opinions editor for the Vignette.