For many U.S. students, a semester abroad is a big part of their college experience. But a mere 50 years ago, studying abroad was much less common, and a much more daring undertaking. One of my favorite professors recently co-wrote a memoir about studying abroad in the 1960s. The first half of Crossing Cultures contains my professor’s story about studying abroad in France, and the second half was penned by a French woman who spent a year abroad in the U.S. around the same time. Each woman shares about being in a foreign land, learning about a different culture and making life-long friends with the people she met while abroad.
Both authors wrote with emotion, personality and depth. They also both did a fantastic job saving correspondence, tickets and diaries from their years abroad, so the book contains a lot of personal artifacts in addition to their anecdotes. They talk about normal touristy things, of course, but also about how they felt, and how their thinking evolved over the course of their time in another country. The resulting book isn’t just about travel: it’s about the self-awareness and self-growth that comes with spending time in another culture.
Beyond basic logistics like crossing the ocean on a boat rather than a plane, I found quite a few differences between my professor’s experience abroad, and my own semester I spent in Spain. Altogether, her’s was a rather different sort of adventure, with less communication to the folks back home as well as less knowledge going into her trip. She didn’t have the luxury of looking up directions on Google Street View, searching online for student groups, or calling home every couple days via Skype.
As I read my professor’s stories, I was also struck by the loose structure of her study abroad program. Or, really, the lack of structure altogether. My semester in Spain was organized by my U.S. university. We had homestay families, organized outings, and a full-time staff member who handled a lot of behind-the-scenes logistics. My European friends on Erasmus exchanges laughed at us, telling me that U.S. students were “babied” by their universities. And actually, I completely agree. While it was nice to have things arranged for me, my professor had a truer sense of adventure, and likely a more authentic experience. Once she got to France she was entirely on her own: no one to help her if she had a problem finding housing, no one setting up her class schedule, no gaggle of Americans to speak to in English.
My professor’s experiences had a profound impact on her life. She became a French instructor, and part of her responsibilities included leading students on a summer program in France’s Loire Valley. I had the privilege of going with her one summer, and very much appreciated how much she encouraged us to get beyond our group housing, beyond our school schedule, and just explore for ourselves. She purposely built in days where we had nothing “official” to do so we could properly wander and learn from the world around us. She encouraged us to make friends with the locals nearby, even when that meant coming home absurdly late or wandering off to someone’s “party cave” (see picture at right). So even though we technically had a structured program, we had as much freedom as she could give us to make discoveries for ourselves.
I had a wonderful time that summer and learned so much. From my classes, from my local friends, from my professor. And that great experience in France inspired me to try really, really hard to make local friends when I spent a semester in Spain a couple years later. An effort that, luckily, truly paid off and made my experience in Spain so much richer than it might have been otherwise.
Just one more observation about Crossing Cultures: it makes me so happy to see that both authors are still in touch with the friends they made during their adventures in the 60s. I treasure the friends I made while abroad, and can only hope we’re still in touch 50 years from now.