When I was accepted to New York University, I assumed that I would start my studies in New York. But, throwing the first of what I suspect will be many curveballs, NYU told me that my acceptance was contingent upon spending my first year in NYU’s Liberal Studies Program in Florence, Italy.
The decision to leave home and move to a new country 5,000 miles away was one that I did not think I would have to make so soon in my life. But I thought when again would I ever be 18 years old with few to no obligations and the freedom to travel the world? The answer was likely never.
Being 18 is kind of like leaning over the edge of a bridge, ready to jump off with nothing tethering you but a harness and a bungee cord. In so many ways, you so desperately want to leap with abandon into that adult world you see laid out before you. But there are so many things that are holding you back. At 18, you are technically considered an adult. But many treat you as if you are still a child. And I cannot say that I fully consider myself an adult simply because I have spent a few months living alone in a foreign country. That’s not how it works. But I have certainly taken steps towards understanding what being an independent and fully functioning member of society actually entails. Before moving to Florence, I had never spent an extended amount of time away from my family, or even away from my native Seattle. That’s what makes studying abroad at 18 so different than doing it at 20 or 21 or even living abroad as an adult. Not only are you struggling to find your place in the world, but you are doing it in a place that is so vastly different than what you are accustomed to and with only a university and brand new friends as support.
There are certain situations in life where you never know how you’ll react until you are actually in that situation. It is easy to stand outside of it and say that you would of course act the hero or show no fear, but would you really? Studying abroad as a freshman is a striking example of this in that it is impossible to gauge how you will react and adapt to the new surroundings if you have never even been away from home before. You can only hope that, given the opportunity, you will confront this new and foreign thing, and chase after the global education and perspective that helps us better understand and participate in view of today’s rapidly changing and globalising world. No longer can any entity be considered an island as there is an interconnection of commerce, trade, and countries that bind the entire globe together. With the proliferation, also, of international conflicts there has arisen the necessity of people well-versed in multiple cultures. The problems that face one corner of the globe are not isolated from the rest of the world, and through study abroad this cross-cultural exchange can happen at younger and younger ages.
Education is so much more than classrooms and teachers and tests: my ability to live in a foreign environment did not come from the pages of a textbook I was required to memorize or from the research for an essay I had to write for a grade: my ability to thrive in a foreign environment came from being forced to learn how to live my life on my own and to confront the opportunities given to me. Study abroad represents so many important aspects of learning, but before one can use it to gain a global perspective it must first be utilized on a personal level of growth.
If it is possible to do more than survive, but thrive, in this unknown and foreign environment then it is possible to do anything.
When I first arrived to Florence, my brain automatically thought of the ‘Stendhal’, or more commonly known as ‘Florence’, Syndrome. It’s a term that describes the physical disbelief someone has when they view something aesthetically pleasing. The history, art, and culture were enticing and caused me to nearly faint. Throughout my first week studying abroad, I was fascinated with every component Florence had to offer. Reality came crashing in when I was shopping in a local supermarket. A woman brushed past me and I was pushed into a bottle of wine as it suddenly crashed to the ground. The culmination of people’s stares, mocking words, and being in a foreign environment caused me to revert back to my child-like emotions, and I began bawling in the center of Esselunga. The honeymoon stage was over, and I realized that I was completely and utterly in over my head.
When I first received my admission to NYU Florence, I was beyond excited. Studying in a different country 4,840 miles from my home was something I could not refuse. Whenever my friends or family would ask if I was nervous to uproot my entire life and move to a foreign place, I would just smile and laugh at them. I projected a fake confidence. I have been to Europe, even Italy, before, so I believed that Florence would be a walk in the park.
My parents and brother immigrated to the United States in the late 1980’s. Because the remainder of my family stayed in Hungary, I was given the opportunity to visit them every summer. I grew up in this strange parallel of Hungarian and American culture. So when I received the news that I would study in Florence my freshman year, I thought I was prepared. I believed that, because I was so connected with Hungary, I wouldn’t receive a culture shock. My naive brain believed that European culture was one homogeneous mixture. Hungary was just like Italy, which was just like Spain, which was like Germany. I didn’t realize the tiny intricacies that exist in each culture. Studying in Italy altered my misconstrued view on Europe. Even though the countries share the same continent, they are enormously different from each other.
Today, looking back at my grocery store experience, I laugh. The tipping over of the bottle was so insignificant. But what it represented to me was so much larger. The moment I knocked over the bottle, my romanticized view on the world was shattered. I was forced to accept that I didn’t actually know every nuance in Italy and for once in my life I didn’t perfectly fit into my surrounding society. Even today, I realize that I still do not fully understand Italian culture. But everyday my pre-conceived idea of Italy and Europe as a whole is changing. Europe is such an interesting continent to study in. Each culture and country contains its own distinct characteristics; however, even after centuries of conflict and war, European countries have managed to create a collaborative structure under the direction of the EU. Without my study abroad experience, I would still view the general stereotype as the specific. When in reality, the general and specifics of a country mix together to create a unified yet beautifully diverse society.
When I first arrived in Florence, I had this romanticized version in my head that resulted from a composition of movies, plays, books, and music. I also come from a very small town in New York that’s predominantly Irish and Sicilian. So when I walked off the plane in Florence Airport, I had this non-mob-like, modern day Godfather in my head. And, like Michelle, I thought I had Italy all figured out. Almost all of my friends are Italian and I was used to eating traditional Italian cuisine since their nonni would make pasta for me all the time. I also studied Spanish for six years, and I believed that I could easily pick up Italian. But while studying abroad for the past couple of months my perception of Italy has completely changed.
In the town I come from, we call it the “bubble.” Meaning, almost no one ever travelled out of town more than 45 minutes away. And in this bubble, I thought that “authentic” Italian cuisine was chicken and eggplant parmesan or penne alla vodka, but once I got to Florence, I realized how Americanized those dishes were. I also thought that all Italians did the “7 fishes” for Christmas Eve and that it was a uniquely Italian custom that everyone did. But in just a few days I learned that it is an Italian-American tradition that is not widely practiced in Italy. And that’s when I realized something, I had taken Sicily, a small geographical area of Italy, and generalized it to an entire country where Tuscany is nothing like Sicily, and the generalization had not even been correct ! By studying here in Florence, I was able to learn about how my bubble did not represent what I thought was Italy.
We all come from different backgrounds, places, and educations that shape who we are. These experiences create our bubbles, or what we consider to be true, and the beauty of studying abroad is that you can challenge each other’s bubbles, you challenge what you think is right and wrong. You keep challenging, keep questioning, keep learning until finally your bubble bursts and you’re forced out of your ignorance and you find yourself actually understanding the world you claimed you knew all about.
Each country is unique, and has so much to offer an individual beyond the typical famous landmarks. You can’t generalize a nation based on one city or group of people. A country is composed entirely of bubbles, you just need to be willing to burst them.
Education is not simply a banking process. Students do not ‘withdraw’ knowledge from a central location. Knowledge is transmitted to students through several filters, including cultural background, knowledge, and, experience. So learning, which is the point of education, is a function of knowledge and the context it is transmitted in. For most students the environment where they are educated goes unchanged for most of their lives. They live with their families in a place where their native tongue is spoken, and most members of the community have the same cultural background as them. This allows context to work invisibly, the environment that shapes what students learn alters their knowledge without the student even realizing it. The most important aspect of studying abroad, in my opinion, is that it radically changes the contextual filter through which students receive their knowledge, opening students up to more world perspectives.
When I started studying abroad I began to become more aware of the filters I was looking at information through, and the filters other students were looking through as well. I had the unique experience of attending primary school in the United States and my later years of education in the Middle East. My time in the Middle East, at a school with a diverse student body, gave me somewhat of an unrealistic world perspective. I thought that every high schooler travelled, and knew of the world, but it turns out that this was not the case. These international students were the most open-minded and empathetic of people, which is not the experience that many students had studying in the U.S. I realized that what made them so open-minded was not some coincidence, but their exposure to many different cultures, which revealed the biases that they held.
If students are forced to learn in different environments, they start to become aware of how those contexts affect the information they receive. Logically, they then begin to examine the preconceived biases that colored the information they received. When students learn in diverse contexts, they begin to realize that they are not so different and to see the unity in their diversity.
This filter functions not only within the the classroom but extends beyond it, as one would hope a global education would. A group of my peers, who were all American, and I were discussing issues of gun violence in the United States. Our discussion hinged on the fact that the Bill of Rights gave Americans the right to bear arms. Every action we proposed to reduce the violence was operating under the paradigm that Americans should be able to get guns if they are mentally healthy. An Italian peer asked us
“Why doesn’t America just outlaw guns”
“Well it’s in the constitution, you can’t just take that away” and we said it like it was the most obvious thing in the world.
“Well, so what?”
That “so what?” is the point of a Global education. That “so what” questions the biases we have held our whole lives, and makes us critically examine them. This allows us to interface with the world, and with knowledge, in a less biased way.
There is an artist I love. His name is Chuck Close. What he is best known for is his style of photorealism, or, pixellation. He takes a photo and divides it into hundreds or thousands of tiny squares. Each square is painted individually, boasting unique squiggles and circles and color schemes. When your nose is three inches from the painting, you can appreciate the intricacies of every pixel. Every one is self sufficient, and could even be considered art by itself.
But as you start to walk backwards, something else begins to develop. You can make out a jawline, an eyelid, pursed lips. Ten steps back, you see a face. Twenty steps back, it’s a woman, and she’s looking at you. The square you were examining closely before has melted into the twinkle in an eye, or the shine on the tip of the nose. All the squares, as perfect as they are alone, have added up. They create a bigger picture.
To me, studying away is a 3,000 mile step back; it is my attempt at making sense of the the larger picture that is the world we live in. It is my effort to see my own home not as an isolated square, but rather as a contributor to something bigger and better.
My step has proved to me that my home, the United States, is just like every other place: just a square. Sure, some squares are more important than others. You could stare at the square of the States on its own for hours, exploring its dual party political system, melting pot of a population and free market economy. Without the United States, the painting, the world, might be different, for better or for worse.
But the larger picture is not beautiful because of my square, the United States. It isn’t even beautiful because of Italy, or China, or Chile or South Africa. If all the squares looked like mine, or China, or Chile or South Africa, we would have no bigger picture. It is the contrast between my square and the square beneath mine, and the square next to that square, that is important. It is our differences that make us beautiful, that make us into something bigger than ourselves. By taking my step back, I have gotten to see the start of the bigger picture that is the entire globe. I hope to continue uncovering more squares far into to the future; hopefully, all the way until the entire picture is clear to me.
I am a student at New York University Shanghai, the first Sino-American university to ever exist and, as a result, it is controversial in its very nature.
When I was 18 years old, I chose to go to this university and I got on a plane and landed in Shanghai only to find that my university didn’t have a library, we didn’t have professors, and we didn’t have any of the established things that we have at an American university. There were days I went to class when I didn’t know where I was going, who was going to be teaching me, or what I was going to be learning. And, naturally, my parents were very upset with me. They said, “How could you give up this amazing opportunity to have a truly American education for this?”.
What they didn’t understand was that the education I was receiving was an American education with the same textbooks that we got from New York University, with essentially the same material we would be learning if we were in New York. But the true educational experience I was receiving was the result of me being in Shanghai and interacting with people who I would never have gotten the opportunity to interact with otherwise.
Every day that I was on the street and was ogled at, every day I didn’t know where to go and I had to get directions from cab drivers, these were the educational experiences that I was receiving. And even I myself questioned this education when I learned about the experiences my peers were having back in New York. And I didn’t fully appreciate my experience until last summer when I was interning with the Securities and Exchange Commission on Capitol Hill.
I had the most amazing opportunity to listen to hearing in which NYU Shanghai’s Vice Chancellor was called forth to answer questions about the legitimacy of NYU Shanghai. I had to sit in the back rows, with my hands clenched, because I was so upset as speakers came forth and questioned the legitimacy of my education. They said the most ignorant things about China, Chinese policies; they talked about my friends, my roommates, as if they were members of the Communist party who were sent to convert my ways of thinking to those of the Communist party of China. It was infuriating as they questioned the policies of New York University Shanghai, saying that it acted as a way for the Chinese government to come and to force abortions on American students, dragging them out of class. It was this ignorance, it was listening to these people who had an American education talk about their experiences, that really made me truly appreciate the experience that I had as a member of the NYU Shanghai community.
I have an American education. I have the same textbooks, the same professors now that they do in New York. But the true educational experience that I received living in Shanghai has broadened my horizons by realizing that there was a world beyond what they teach in American education and its that value that you draw from your experiences abroad that truly makes a difference how you visualize the world.
As a student entering my final months of university, when I’m not panicking about graduation, I spend a lot of time to look back at my years of education, and my college career, trying to figure out how it’s prepared me for the future. What I’ve realized is that my education has really boiled down to a series of questions. I’m not referring to the questions that I’ve encountered on the countless exams I’ve taken during the course of my educational career. No, I’m talking about the bigger questions that are not so easily answered. Questions about myself: What am I good at? What challenges me? What am I passionate about? But education, especially higher education, has also forced me to ask questions about the world around me. What problems do I see in my community or in the world? Why do those problems exist? What role can I play to address them? These are the kinds of questions that at some point everyone must answer, and the answers ultimately define who we are; but our ability to answer these questions is largely shaped by our experiences. Without experiences that force us to change and to grow, our views of ourselves and of the world remain limited. Global education offers students the opportunity to move beyond our limitations, not only transforming our educational experience, but transforming us in the process. As you’ve heard from the panelists before me, each person’s experience abroad is different, but I think each of our unique experiences come together to demonstrate some of the most important benefits of a global education.
First, global education has given us an opportunity for self development. Change and discovery are dynamic process that cannot occur without first taking yourself out of your comfort zone; If you never challenge yourself, you never learn what you’re capable of. Living and studying in an unfamiliar environment means that every day is a new challenge. For me, even seemingly small experiences, like learning how to navigate around the city to being able to have a short conversation in Italian, is actually an opportunity to discover something new about myself. Self-awareness is one of the most important tools that education can offer this new generation of students, because only when we are aware of our own strengths and talents, can we determine where we fit in the diverse global landscape.
Secondly, global education challenges us to examine our perspectives. When you spend time immersing yourself in a different culture, your position as an outsider forces you to constantly question the origins and the legitimacy of your perspective of the world. For example, I study politics and international health. But everything that I learn and study is either implicitly or explicitly Americentric. But now I have the opportunity to study with European professors who are teaching through a European perspective, and I’m learning about different systems of government, recognizing different theories of democracy, and analyzing different societal problems. Global education has not only made me aware of my biases, but has forced me to think outside of them. And challenging our perspectives does not end in the classroom, because once students have the tools to analyze their own perspectives, they can use those tools in the world around them to challenge the limited perspectives of others that may breed prejudice, conflict, and fear.
Which leads me to the final, and, I think, most important benefits of global learning; it helps us develop empathy. Empathy is probably one of the most important characteristics a person can posses, and is unfortunately a skill often neglected in our education. So many of our world’s problems can be traced to leaders, policy makers, and groups of people who are unwilling and unable to understand people who are different than themselves. But a global education takes us out of the world we’ve always known and, for a month, a semester, or a year, pushes us into a world outside of our own. And after the first push, it becomes more natural to push ourselves again and again to step into another world, another context, another person’s reality, until we find ourselves not only able to understand different perspectives than our own, but also able to appreciate the beauty of our diversity and complexity. I truly believe that if we begin to challenge the world’s students to think and learn globally, and we arm them with the tools to interact across cultural, religious, and ethnic boundaries with not only intelligence but empathy, it is then that we will truly begin to see global transformation.
Mayor Nardella Tweet and Program
Video of the conference