These days I often find it difficult to close my eyes, because right now, I am living in my dream. Since I was a kid in elementary school I knew I wanted to study abroad; it is an opportunity to explore new cultures, places, and ideas. I recognize I am a product of my environment and opportunities – I would not be writing this today in Strasbourg, France, if not for my family, friends, mentors, and teachers. These individuals have supported me in my endeavors, challenged me to work harder, and inspire me to pursue my passions. Only around 1.6% of U.S. students enrolled in higher education study abroad each year; for most students, studying abroad is simply infeasible. These four months in France are truly a gift, and I owe it to the people who helped get me here, to be cognizant and reflective. I believe it is my responsibility to think critically and share some of the insights I have derived from my first two months of studying abroad.
I am by no means an expert on understanding cultural differences, I am far from being a truly immersed, global citizen, and these insights have no doubt been written about before. This essay is partially a platform for me to understand where I have gained value from my experience; but, maybe it will also be a platform for me to distribute value to others. Perhaps it will shed new light on the importance of learning from different cultures and appreciating the world we inhabit. Although minute, perhaps I will be doing my part to bridge the cultural divide and connect this world even more. I hope you enjoy.
These past two months I’ve had the privilege of meeting people from all over the world and it is the most inspiring aspect of studying abroad. I’ve met and made friends with people from Australia, Singapore, Ireland, Spain, France, Kazakhstan, Finland, Czech Republic, Hungary, U.S., Canada, Mexico, Colombia, and more; each person has a story and perspective that varies vastly from the next. Most of the time I just sit in awe and listen to people speak about their cultures, the hardships they’ve endured, and the passions they grip fervently. I want to share two stories that have influenced my perspective.
When I first met Mariana, what struck me most was how proud she is to say she is from Colombia. It was this passion which prompted me to learn more about her story. When people first learn she is from Colombia, overwhelmingly, their first response is to ask about drugs and crime. The Colombia that many people know, is the Colombia depicted in Narcos – Pablo Escobar, cocaine, drug-trafficking, guerillas, and violence. To be frank, those issues have plagued Colombia in the past. The guerillas were founded in the 1960’s as a communist-inspired army. Much of their operations were funded by drug-trafficking and ransom payments, leading to violence for a long period of time. However, the past is the past, and a lot of the violence and corruption has eased. Narcos, while portraying true issues, undermines the tremendous progress that Colombia has made to create peace. Colombia is more than just Pablo Escobar, and it is more than its past.
Mariana recognizes there is progress to be made, but she chooses to view her country in a positive light and focuses on the aspects that make Colombia unique and beautiful. For starters, it is a cultural hub having been a home to writers like Gabriel García Márquez, artists like Juanes and Shakira, painters like Fernando Botero, and athletes like James Rodríquez.
“I wish everyone was able to see Colombia through my eyes.”
It was through those eyes that she grew up watching the Carnaval de Barranquilla, filled with adults and children dancing, celebrating their culture. Those eyes that would watch people cheer madly for the Colombian National Football Team; those eyes that witnessed the beauty in the beaches, mountains, and cities that comprise the land; and those eyes that have consistently seen energetic, warm, and loving people, fight through adversity and remain strong. That is the Colombia that Mariana knows and holds so dearly. As an aspiring journalist, her experiences have shaped her passion to one day open a media company that focuses on positive news stories in Colombia. It is her dream to inspire hope and compassion in the people, and to share the Colombia she sees through her eyes.
Besides experiencing joy while listening to her speak about her country, Mariana taught me to look beneath the surface of a situation; it is a reminder to seek the truth and the light within the world, a country, or a person.
The next story is about my friend Bernat from Barcelona, who has experienced Catalonia’s plight for independence from Spain. His story is complicated and I will attempt to give a brief synopsis; Catalonia is a region of 7.5 million people in the northeast corner of Spain, notable for being the region of Barcelona. Catalans have their own language, their own culture, their own parliament, and their own history. On multiple occasions, the Spanish government has tried to suppress Catalan identity, including the period after the siege of Barcelona in 1714 during the War of Spanish Succession, and also during the reign of the military dictator Francisco Franco from 1939 – 1975. Catalonia, accounting for 16% of Spain’s population, is a wealthy region accounting for 19% of GDP and 25% of industrial production. Recently, the country has seen Madrid take large sums of taxes from their region, and distribute the benefits to areas outside of Catalonia. This history has created cultural, political, and economic motives for the Catalan population to claim the right of self-determination, and it lead to the events that took place on October 1, 2017.
Since 2012, the Catalan Parliament has been calling on the Spanish government to hold a referendum, to let the people decide the future of their small nation. However, after twenty formal demands and consequential denials, the Catalan government led by Carles Puigdemont scheduled a referendum to vote for independence without consent from Madrid. After the announcement, “The government of the conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy called on residents to stay home. With the help of Spanish courts and the police, it confiscated paper ballots and closed referendum-related websites.” (New York Times) When the Catalan’s took to the streets to demonstrate peacefully and exercise their right to vote, the Spanish government sent police forces and the violence used on citizens is truly shocking. When talking to Bernat, who associates himself as a Catalan and is on the pro-independence side, he said, “It’s no longer a nationalist issue, it’s an issue of democracy. Catalans deserve the right to decide on independence and to have their voices heard.”
These are his people; you can see in his eyes the deep connection and love he has for Catalonia, and the hurt he feels while describing the violence. There are two sides of every story; Bernat has encouraged me to research and understand the motives from the Catalan and Spanish perspective. One thing is evident – the actions taken by the Spanish Government to inhibit the vote, violated human rights and clearly undermines the value of democracy. To understand more of the situation I encourage you to watch the video on youtube: “Help Catalonia. Save Europe.”
I could go on to share multiple stories like these two which have impacted the way I think and view the world. Studying abroad has pushed me to be cognizant and opened my eyes to situations and hardships that I knew little or nothing about. I’ve realized I am passionate about connecting people; sharing stories so we realize we are more alike than we are different. When you listen to people’s stories, you empathize and learn how you can advocate for them.
Observe – Interpret – Value:
I recently attended a lecture on French Culture, delivered by a professor who has experience working with schools from all around the world. Dr. Mac Gabhann implored that we should be curious about the toughest issues of the day, both business and social, and that we should be garnering a European perspective to assist in decision making. One of his main points resonated with me: it is not satisfactory to exclusively observe French behaviors, you have to interpret those behaviors using historical and societal context, in order to value the French culture.
Personally, I do not know the French language and, most of the time, I have absolutely no idea what people are saying around me. However, I am still actively attempting to immerse myself in the culture, so I have been researching French history as an avenue to relate to French students and interpret their behaviors. One of my observations is that the French appear to be slightly less welcome to speaking other languages, and prefer for you to attempt to speak in French. My interpretation is that France is a very proud country; their language represents their rich history of Enlightenment thinkers, innovation and diplomacy. They have also seen the English language infiltrate their society and it has upended some of the French influence around the world. These changes have made the French more protective of their language, and hence, on average, slightly less welcome to speaking different languages. I have learned to value the pride they have in their country, and it has motivated me to learn more of the language, culture, and history.
I stated before that I am not yet an immersed global citizen, but I do have aspirations to one day work with people across borders. I am excited to be exposed to many different cultures and it is necessary to value their differences in order to collaborate and optimize performance. I believe this framework, observe – interpret – value, is an important reminder to abandon preconceptions, and learn how to view cultural differences in a positive light.
I love reflecting on moments. There is something incredibly satisfying about narrowing your scope, and understanding exactly what specific events brought you happiness. Time is fleeting; you are forced to pay attention to the details to prevent sources of happiness from slipping away. Traveling produces a heightened sense of emotion. Time after time, these past two months I have experienced moments where I just feel happy and alive and inspired. Everywhere I go, I am surrounded by beauty. Beauty in the streets of Vienna, captured from my early morning stroll in the snow; beauty in the alleyways of Strasbourg, on Sunday mornings when the quaint apartments and their iron railings have still yet to be woken; beauty in the sunsets, enveloping the Côte d’Azur, Paris, and Florence in their own distinct shade of red and orange; beauty in the thousands of years of French history, rich with the Enlightenment, kings, queens, revolutions, art, fashion, and cuisine; and finally, beauty in the friends I have met, each one with a tale from another part of the world. This world has destinations to explore, cultures to learn from, ideas waiting to be tapped, and beauty to be discovered; what a privilege it is to play our own role.
Life will likely not always be this lively, where I seemingly have the freedom to travel to another country every weekend. So while I am holding onto this time dearly, I am also not afraid of when it will pass. Whether I am spending hours studying or relaxing with friends, hanging out in Ohio or traveling the world, I control my mindset and can always work to derive happiness from the simplest moments. Life is short, and I know for many it is characterized by hardship, inequality, and constant struggle. But try to focus on what brings you happiness, what you are grateful for, and what inspires you. Optimism only strengthens your ability to enact positive change. For me, studying abroad has reaffirmed the importance of appreciating the individuals and opportunities which have shaped me, and also taught me to pause and reflect. There is a lot of beauty in this world, we just have to open our eyes and look.
Read more of his experiences in France on Brad Herndon’s original blog here!
About the Author: Brad Herndon, Sophomore, Finance. Student Exchange Program- France.