This past summer, I had an amazing opportunity to go on a 10-week study abroad program in Europe, learning about the European Union, US-EU relations, European security, and human rights. I spent 6 weeks in Brussels with a host family, and about a week each in Ireland, France, Germany, and Poland. Needless to say, it was an incredible journey and an intense experience, in which I grew so much in so many ways. Below are some of the valuable lessons that I learned:
1. Europe is complex
If you’re living on the outside, it can be really easy to see the entire continent as one homogenous group. But if living with a host family and meeting officials from Foreign Ministers across the continent has taught me anything, it is that Europe is much more complex and diverse than it is often understood to be.
Within the European Union itself, there are 28 member states, 24 different official languages, and 500 million people (and that doesn’t include non-EU countries like Switzerland, Iceland, or Norway). Every country has its own complicated history, national pride, and matters of concern that need to be understood in its context.
2. Twitter is surprisingly powerful
Whether or not I agree with relying on 140 characters to stay informed on world events, social media, especially Twitter, is becoming a big deal. Every think tank, government agency, and organization that wants to stay with the times is being pushed to create new roles and departments dedicated to having a social media presence.
For example, Bruegel, a Brussels-based economic policy think tank, discussed the importance of disseminating reports in an understandable and accessible manner. Additionally, Human Rights Watch has used targeted tweets to key policy makers and journalists in order to raise awareness about important risk areas, like Central Africa.
If used correctly, Twitter can be an effective way to receive live information from a variety of sources, to inform audiences around the world, and ultimately, to persuade others.
3. Everyone generalizes
Any new city you visit, you might have an extended interaction with no more than maybe twenty people. The way our brain works through generalizations and heuristics, those twenty people will now represent the way you understand the attitudes, viewpoints, and behavior of the entire population. All it takes is one bad experience with some drunk German teenagers on the train or a really nice taxi driver in Dublin to shape the way we subconsciously view an entire country.
The reverse is also true, which means that regardless of how diverse your country, like the United States, might be, when you are abroad, people will automatically come to associate your behavior with how all Americans act. That makes it even more important for you to be on your best behavior, because every small act of kindness or carelessness not only gives people an impression of you, but your entire country.
4. The United States matters
Whatever stories of American decline are out there (and are probably true), the United States is still a huge player in the international sphere. In many places around the world, when you tell people that you are American, they want to know your opinion on issues and events – your opinion matters more than you may be aware of.
The world is much bigger than we can be willing to admit at times. While it’s true that we are all human beings, being exposed to different cultures and governments made me realize that we all have different lifestyles, thought processes, and ultimately, different values (however small that difference may be). Being able to not only respect the perspective of others, but to actually take the time to understand it, is invaluable and necessary if we are all to get along.
6. Intentional Gratitude
As frustrating as it would get at times to not have air conditioning, Zaxby’s, or reliable wifi, when you’re studying abroad, you really have to take a moment to acknowledge, “Hey, I’m complaining about having to wait in line to go see this amazing view of Paris – this is not the end of the world.”
Visiting the concentration camp of Auschwitz in Poland, I saw the site in which horrific crimes were committed. Before being mass murdered and treated like animals, people were taken away from their homes and separated from their families, shaved, stripped naked, given only one pair of clothes, had to share toilets in the open, slept five people to a wooden plank, and were given an insufficient amount of food (just to say the least).
After visiting such a place and cities in which millions of people were taken away due to the Holocaust, it becomes even more important to remain intentionally grateful for having the luxury of only having to make mundane decisions, as opposed to having to choose which family member has to survive because there is only enough food for one.
No matter how great you may think you are or how much you think you know, there’s always going to be some place on this Earth where no one will care. When you only know English, Hindi, and a little bit of French and you go to a place where people only seem to understand German – you are the one who looks like an uncultured idiot. It’s an important lesson to remember that our greatness needs to live within ourselves, rather than our titles and accomplishments, where all of our “greatness” can be taken away by someone who fails to recognize it.
8. Importance of Language, History, and Culture
We each have a lens with which we view the world – tinted by our culture, language, and our memory. What we consciously or unconsciously choose to remember or forget – all of it matters. Between Europe and the US, views on violence, guns, and war tend to much different because our lenses and our memories are different. For example, whereas the United States and the United Kingdom might see World War I and II as times of victory and showing of military might, for the rest of continental Europe, the story is much different, because the war was fought on their own soil.
In London, there are big palaces and monuments that constantly remind citizens of old imperial conquests, whereas in Berlin, there are more ruins and construction and plagues on the sidewalks in memory of Jewish citizens, which paints a much more somber painting of war. In addition, language is such an important tool in communication, which can help to create bonds between countries as well as divides. In Poland for example, the Polish language is a huge part of its own identity and culture, which is something that separates the Polish people from its neighbors, but also brings together the entire culture.
9. The Manipulation of History and the Subjectivity of Truth
Everyone is told a different history. In Poland, the youth are extremely skeptical of the history they learn, because they have been told so many versions by Germans, Soviets, Americans, etc.. In the United States, I’ve always learned about the terrible crimes of the Holocaust. However, what we don’t seem to emphasize as much on is the fact that during the time of the war, the US put its own Japanese citizens in concentration camps (different from Nazi Death Camps) out of fear.
Additionally, at the same time we were reprimanding the Nazis for their irrational hatred against Jews, we were in a Jim Crow era in which black Americans were being lynched. World War II is often seen as the last major conflict in Europe, and yet we often fail to acknowledge the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s, during which 100,000 people were killed and two million people became refugees on European soil.
When you meet people from all over the world, you begin to realize that we’ve all been taught a different history. There is so much that we don’t know that we don’t know, so it best to be open to hearing all sides of the story.
10. Meditation is a life saver
Especially when you’re studying abroad, you’re bound to have some missed flights/buses, shoddy hotels, and late nights, but rather than trying to be a control freak and prevent every disaster that is coming your way, it’s important to be able to allow things to happen, step back and interiorize. By practicing heart-based meditation every day, I was able to deal with the constant change of country, culture, people, and language by always turning inward and remembering that home is wherever my heart is.
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