Why Studying Abroad Has the Power to Shift Our Divisive Campus Culture

Why Studying Abroad Has the Power to Shift Our Divisive Campus Culture

We hear the laments all the time: “Stanford hates fun.” “The flake culture is too much.” “I’ve felt imposter syndrome since stepping on campus.” These sayings become endlessly repeated clichés, thrown in conversation casually; yet deep down, most students recognize them as true.

In a time when our politics have become increasingly polarized, people isolate themselves in echo chambers, and some have even started to question ideas as fundamental as the concept of objective truth, building genuine community is more important than ever. Especially communities where difficult conversations can be had in a respectful manner. But that can be incredibly challenging on Stanford’s campus.

Though some students find meaningful connection through campus organizations—whether they be social, cultural, or pre-professional— these are hardly the places to debate the most fundamental issues of our time. Politically focused organizations tend to increase an us-versus-them mentality for their members. Pre-professional clubs are for networking and job opportunities. None of these groups fill the void—and none of them should. They do what they say on the tin.

The fact of the matter remains: the typical Stanford student is rarely put in a setting where he can build worthwhile relationships upon a foundation of trust, community, and dialogue. Study abroad is that place.

In an increasingly secular and selfish world, where we have lost a sense of civic duty and coming together for something bigger than ourselves, I genuinely believe that friendship is one of the strongest weapons we have to combat a culture of tribalism, unfair assumptions, and prejudice amongst those who think differently. And on a campus filled with such vices, sometimes the best course of action is to leave, even if just for a quarter.

Studying abroad creates an environment primed for students to form lasting friendships through the time they spend together, the adventures they share, the potentially life-altering questions they ponder, and the trust that comes as a result.

While abroad, Stanford students have significantly less work than on campus, which allows for more time and space to connect with those around them. Because they attend most of their classes in the same buildings, and some live together (such as in Oxford or Florence), they have consistent time with one another at meals and walking to and from classes. The students also find themselves in places that push them to discuss issues beyond the Stanford bubble.

I studied abroad in Florence, and it was three of the best months of my life, especially as a community-oriented person. All of my classmates and I lived in the same place (an international dorm-hotel), and took our classes together in the same palazzo. We enjoyed breakfast together, navigated the streets of Florence with one another (debating who had the best route to reach the Stanford Center), and strolled to the grocery store in groups to pick up items for lunch. There were only 40 people in my program, so we all had the chance to get to know one another, while still having enough students so that everyone could “find their people.” Unlike Stanford’s campus, where students tend to have one or two catch-up meals with friends each quarter (outside of any standing meals with their closest friends), and perhaps see other friends at clubs or in class, studying abroad means consistent time with people in situations where you can actually talk about things that matter, and not just share your class list for the quarter for the 15th time in a week.

Take Italy: you can’t spend a day there without noticing the Catholic Church, a ubiquitous part of daily life. In the Art History class that most students took, we visited museums and churches with a professor who is also a priest at the Duomo. Spending three hours a week learning about the history of stunning art, impressive architecture, and the families who funded it all was an unmatched experience. For many, this was the first time they were learning about the Classics, the Renaissance, or Christianity in depth. As a follower of Jesus, it meant I had friends ask me questions about my faith often. It also meant that we were all considering something bigger than ourselves every day: art, history, and, most importantly, God. We formed unique and lasting bonds through those conversations.  

Throughout the quarter, my friends and I discussed school choice in the United States over cappuccinos, America’s pandemic response while looking out at the Arno, and gender roles during our lunches. One of my fondest memories came at the end of the quarter, after we had already had the preceding conversations. Two friends and I went to enjoy quintessential Italian hot chocolate, and one friend asked us, “What is a controversial issue where you believe in the hot take?” A fascinating conversation ensued. It was a conversation that could not have happened without the friendship and trust we had built over weeks of walking, talking, and eating together. We had strikingly different views on these controversial issues, yet respected one another enough to listen intentionally, ask thoughtful questions, and learn from each other. On campus, we tend to silo ourselves into spaces where everyone agrees with us. While studying abroad, it doesn’t work that way. A friendship built on shared ideas is nice, but a friendship built on shared experience and trust, where each person respects the other for their starkly contrasting views, is a rare gift and ought to be treasured.

And these friends don’t always have to be discussing the most serious topics of our day: as C.S. Lewis put it so aptly in The Four Loves: “The man who agrees with us that some question, little regarded by others, is of great importance can be our Friend. He need not agree with us about the answer.

So, study abroad for the late night gelato runs, to learn a new language in its country of origin, to see more of the world, to enjoy Tuscan sunsets, and of course, eat the world’s best pizza (can you tell I’m partial to the Florence program?). But, more importantly, recognize that the time abroad is an opportunity to build bonds that will last a lifetime because they will be built on consistent time together, considering the biggest questions a human can ever ask, and serious trust and respect.  

Perhaps some time across the pond can help improve American civil life, starting with Stanford’s campus. I certainly believe it can.

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