Students return from abroad with new perspectives on America, Americans

Patricia Vanderbilt

This January, 74 students are back at Whitman after spending the Fall 2010 semester on a study abroad or domestic partner program.

Granted, these Whitties are more worldly after their off-campus experiences. They have adapted to a way of living different from the “American Way”, and they have the stories and photos to prove it. But Whitman students returning from off-campus studies are also more knowledgeable about a topic closer to home: the United States.

According to Director of Off-Campus Studies Susan Holme Brick, typically one of the main goals of students who study abroad is to learn about the country they’re visiting. Many are surprised at how much their abroad experience puts their home culture into perspective.

“By learning about how people elsewhere do things, you learn about your own  country,” said Brick, adding that study abroad offers students a “critical lens on their own society as much as it offers insights into whatever place they’ve gone to.”

The Pioneer asked several recently-returned Whitties about the impressions of America that they came across while abroad. The stereotypes they cite are both amusing and telling of the image our country projects on a global scale.

Juniors Caitlin Goldie and Michail Gerogiev described stereotypes of American women that they encountered:

“American girls are Christian and obsessed with marriage,” said Goldie, who studied in Paris.

“All you have to do to sleep with an American girl is have a British accent,” said Georgiev, recently back from London.

Other impressions dealt with America’s superpower status.

“You come from a very powerful place,” said junior Hanna Daly, quoting her Peruvian host father. She attested that in Peru there is an association of America with money.

Though Whitman students may not have agreed with the opinions about the United States that they heard voiced abroad, their overseas experiences did alter their own perspectives.

“After coming back I find Americans more socially inept,” said Georgiev.

“Americans are a lot less environmentally aware: it’s less of a priority for them,” said Gerringer, comparing America and New Zealand. She also said that she felt less patriotic while overseas.

“I saw another way of a country functioning and thriving,” she said.

Goldie also sees her home nation differently now that she has returned.

“Americans are less interested in their own history than I thought,” she said. Though Goldie described herself as no more or less patriotic while abroad, “I felt more aware of myself as an American,” she said.

Whitman Counselor Sharon Kaufman-Osborn, M.S.W. finds that students who study abroad return with new awareness of their privileges as Americans.

“Although they might have complaints about U.S. politics, they sometimes report that they appreciate what they have available to them as United States citizens,” Kaufman-Osborn, who talks with students who have studied abroad, said in an e-mail.

The return to life at Whitman is colored by experiences and perspectives gained abroad.

“It feels very restricting to be back in Walla Walla after London,” said Georgiev.

“The conveniences and comforts that we have here are hard to adjust to,” said Daly.

Gerringer and Goldie agreed, citing heating as an example, while Daly mentioned toilet paper.

Time abroad can give students a critical lens on America, but it can also offer a new appreciation of the ability to call a place home.

“I felt tired of not being a part of the country.” said Daly. “I wanted to feel that I belonged.”