Student Tourists

As more Americans study abroad than ever, the basic courtesies of travel are being lost in translation.

By Flavia Martinez, Amherst College


To my fellow U.S. college students in Europe,

Finding programs to spend a semester abroad is easier than ever before, which means studying in a cool location outside the U.S. is more and more feasible for all types of students.

A full year, once the standard length of time for a program abroad, is no longer required, and it’s easy to spend only the fall or spring semester off campus. Aside from a shorter time, a larger number of courses taught in English are encouraging students to explore a possibility that they might not have considered otherwise. These two factors have made a semester overseas extremely popular, and last year, 313,415 American college students chose to study abroad, a 2.9 percent increase from the previous academic year.

Increased accessibility offers new opportunities and poses new challenges, as the type of student that chooses to spend time away from campus has changed. Americans are now recognizing the potential of study away, an experience once geared toward long-term language and cultural immersion, and many opt to travel in search of a semester-long party.

While studying in a different country is a blast, it’s important to remember that respect is key when living or visiting a different part of the world. As guests in a foreign country, students should proceed by learning the language, acting accordingly in public and being responsible tourists.

An Open Letter to American Students Studying Abroad

Image via U.S. News and World Report

European cities are popular destinations, comprising 54.5 percent of chosen destinations, and the language barrier isn’t a problem in England, Ireland or Scotland, as it is other common destinations like Italy, Spain or France, where many students choose to study, but might not make the effort to learn the language beforehand.

Studying away is a privilege, and being a native English speaker is also a privilege. Many people outside of the U.S. need to speak English simply to get a job, but many U.S. citizens are monolingual. About 25 percent of U.S. citizens can hold a conversation in a second language, compared to 54 percent in Europe. Going to another country without learning some of the language may not be as impossible as it once was, but it’s still disrespectful.

I’ve heard too many similar, wistful declarations of, “I’d really wished I’d learned Italian before getting to Rome!” Stepping off the plane and out of the airport doesn’t mean it’s too late to learn the language; it’s the perfect time to dive in and students should take advantage of the opportunity.

Mastering a new language in four months doesn’t have to be the end goal, but being able to get around independently and not using the English menu at a restaurant are small accomplishments and a good way to show respect for another country’s culture, especially where one chooses to spend a whole semester.

The same principle applies to visiting other countries in Europe, which four months of study abroad make quite possible. With a lighter workload than in the U.S., weekends are the logical time to carry out travel plans.

The more frequently one travels, however, the less time (and energy) there is to prepare language-wise. English is so common at times that visiting a country and learning fewer than five words of the local language is all too likely. Country-hopping may seem productive, but it’s also extremely tiring and might sabotage respectful tourist goals. No matter how busy a week leading up to a trip has been, learning ten or fifteen words on the plane or train can go a long way.

Extensive travel poses another challenge: Americans meet other Americans through their programs, and it’s natural to want to travel in a group. However, when traveling in a group, becoming an obnoxious tourist happens organically. Members of a group feed off each other’s energy, and when energy levels are high, a well-intentioned group of American tourists turns into “those people” who draw attention on the street.

It’s great to be young in Europe, but save it for the bars or the club. To avoid being “those people,” acting accordingly in public is key, because, though being bold and loud is fun, brazen behavior doesn’t always go over well. There’s a time and a place to sing in the streets, and, though it’s not legal in all European countries, there’s a time and place to drink in the streets.

Students traveling abroad should recognize that they are guests in someone else’s city.

Traveling is a privilege; observing is a treat.

Everyone has the right to act as they please, but a good tourist should be considerate.

Central to respect is learning the language and volume control. Any tourist that knows a bit of the language and can recognize when it’s appropriate to be loud is on the right track. An understanding of these two factors is key. A city may be a tourist destination, but it’s also a place where people live.

Europe presents a lot of opportunities beyond the U.S. college experience; don’t fuck it up.

Sincerely,

An American Abroad