Skip To Main Content

The Value of a Study Abroad Experience

The Value of a Study Abroad Experience
Alicia Furgueson, World Languages faculty

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

Nelson Mandela

“I want to speak Spanish fluently!” my students tell me at the beginning of each school year when I ask them what they want to achieve in Spanish. “Study abroad,” I respond, steadfast in my conviction that the study abroad experience is transformative, which is why I spend the rest of the school year cajoling my students into considering it. I share anecdotes from my own experience studying in Spain, hoping to encourage my students to jump outside of their comfort zone and live in another country. I want them to understand that study abroad is an essential part of language acquisition and becoming bilingual. 

Language is transmitted as part of culture. When students study abroad, they do more than learn a language; they live the language and culture, because language and culture are intimately connected. Rita Mae Brown reminds us that “language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going." Cultural immersion, then, becomes essential to becoming bilingual. 

Learning a language has so many layers. It is a process that happens over time and with consistent practice. Learning cultural norms is part of this process, and the most authentic way to do this is through an immersive study abroad experience. Students witness first-hand how their language studies come to life outside of the classroom. Every interaction while abroad deepens their understanding of the language, allowing them to put their skills into practice daily because they are surrounded by so much context, which is  comprehensible input that expands and reinforces their knowledge base in the language. Students further develop their language skills and see how those skills are applicable in real world situations. Being able to communicate effectively in different social contexts requires a knowledge of cultural norms, which gives insight into how and why, to say what, to whom. 

Knowing a language influences and shapes our perceptions of other people, and as part of Dana Hall’s mission to prepare students for the challenges they will face as "women and citizens of the world," cultural immersion must be an integral part of becoming caring and tolerant citizens in a globalized world. Cultural immersion is key to connecting with new cultures and gaining cross-cultural awareness. It broadens students’ perspective, gives them a deeper understanding of global issues, and impacts their world view because it challenges it. Expanding cultural awareness, will grow cultural competence. We are fortunate that Dana Hall offers financial assistance to students who qualify, so that travel abroad experiences can be inclusive.

So, I charge students to lean into the discomfort they may feel at the prospect of studying abroad and if one day, they find themselves studying in another country, to remember to surrender to the experience. Tourists observe, travelers engage, adventurers plunge. Take the plunge, and study abroad!