We read them.
We tweet and share them.
Some of us even write them!
Just what am I talking about? Blog posts about studying abroad. Those often comical, lighthearted rankings, lists, and advice about the abroad experience, typically housed on institutions’ and third party providers’ blog sites, but also mainstream websites such as Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, and Thought Catalog. A few of the topics I have recently read include; lists on the “best” countries to study, reasons to ditch that Friday class and jet off to another country for the weekend, and the 10 types of people you will meet studying abroad.
I get it. These posts are meant to be silly, fun reads that are geared towards 20-year-olds about travel. Some of these articles do include good information . But it is mostly information on travel, accommodation, shopping, or food; rarely anything about academics in another country, cultural immersion, or topics of re-entry, mental health, and other not-so-glamorous aspects of studying abroad. These mainstream articles often take creative approaches and do generally help promote and make study abroad seem more accessible to interested students. But could they be doing more harm than we can initially see?
How do articles and blog posts on studying abroad, lists of advice, city rankings, memes, and other content, usually without much academic or cultural focus, affect education abroad?
Buzzfeed often posts quizzes, lists of GIFs, and short reads with a study abroad theme, such as these lists of the best and worst parts of studying abroad in Europe. And let’s be honest, these sort of posts never place much value on the actual academe or even cultural aspect of studying abroad. A recent post by our friends at GoOverseas was a ranking of the top 5 “manliest” cities for studying abroad. While male students are typically underrepresented in study abroad, this post may have just reinforced typical societal bounds on what being “male” means as far as your interests and hobbies. Back in February, Huffington Post posted an article entitled “10 Beauty Problems You Probably Had If You Studied Abroad”. The author cites tiny showers, weight gain, appliances shorting out, water quality (as in hard vs soft, not drinkable vs nondrinkable), limited wardrobe choices (but also blisters from wearing your highest heels on cobblestone streets), and not having access to the same beauty products as you do in the states as major problems for the study abroad experience. I don’t know about you, but hard water was definitely the biggest challenge in all of my experiences abroad. Finally someone is talking about these pivotal issues!
Now, I don’t want to be negative or cut other writers down. It is tough to draft new content, and you want to make every article marketable and able to attract attention amongst the endless wave of posts containing listed advice or ranked cities. But is this really how we want to paint study abroad?
Education abroad posts such as these, especially those that are mainstream and sometimes even go viral, seem to be all that people outside of the field know about international education- not to mention what sort of impression is left on prospective students. This poses a real danger for the credibility of the field, the future of funding, the value placed on global education by university faculty and administrators, and the quality of the programs in which our students participate.
These articles do little more than simply reinforce the sterotype of the “ugly American” that we at Melibee, in conjunction with Amizade, created BetterAbroad.org to address, create conversation around, and eventually combat. What is most bothersome is using the term “study abroad” to address circumstances and problems that have nothing to do with actual education abroad, but essentially are issues an individual lacking cultural competence may encounter when travelling/ partying their way through Europe (and, yes, it’s always Europe). Yes, they are fun, silly reads many people just brush off as typical of what college students studying abroad experience. But what will continual use of the “study abroad” guise in this sort of travel writing do to our field? Is it really harmless, tongue-in-cheek, easy reading? Or does it discredit education abroad programs, students, faculty, and providers, and ultimately endanger higher education as a whole? I hope that there are more responses to and questioning of these articles and, in the very least, they inspire dialogue in and out of the field.
About the Author: Sarah Dilworth is a travel lover from the mid-Atlantic region of the United States whose passion for experiencing other cultures has taken her to over two dozen countries on three continents so far. She earned a Masters Degree in Intercultural Studies from Dublin City University in 2010. Sarah has worked in the nonprofit sector facilitating cultural exchange, primary and secondary education, and is a member of the Melibee hive. She currently splits her time between Ireland and the US.