“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”
– Augustine of Hippo
Never before have postsecondary institutions pushed so hard for the internationalization of programs and degrees. And never before have so many students chosen to define their postsecondary experience by studying, volunteering or working in foreign lands.
It’s no secret that going abroad is an asset. Universities market their exchange programs as a means to paten your resume, to learn a new language, to have “the time of your life” and the list goes on. And while all of these motivations may be true, there are other dimensions to going abroad that are less spoken of, but that, in my opinion, are more important and central.
First, the single story. The single story is made up of singularities: a singular way of thinking, one idea or opinion towards a problem, a culture, a people or a way of life. As stated by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the single story consists of stereotypes or of single views and perceptions brought upon by media and popular culture. And while the single story may not be untruthful, it often remains incomplete. Societies and the people that make them up are not simple, and while they may speak one language, practice one faith or share common traditions, they continue to be complex and intricate. Traveling abroad does not forcibly delegitimize the single story; it does, in almost all cases, add to it. For me, Mexico went from a war torn country with beautiful beaches, to a place where charity, family and community are cherished above all. Chile went from a post-card perfect beach and glacier album, to a state where students are mobilizing to denounce the injustices in their government, and fight for universal education and for a greater real middle class. Washington, D.C. went from a monster that for decades terrorized the world through its foreign policy, to an international hub for dialogue and for the furtherance of human rights. And Costa Rica went from a party-on-the-beach scene, to a place where I fell in love for the first time.
Going abroad adds to the single story to make it a human, a plural, story. Or, said differently, going abroad sews a thread of many stories to make one complete and personal narrative.
Then, the dam of fear. In my last article, Le bilinguisme continue à inspirer le Canada, à éveiller le monde, I spoke of the destructive power of fear within a society. Much of this fear dwells in not understanding the other and of being vulnerable. Indeed, it is a daunting feeling for many to walk into a room and not being able to linguistically comprehend what others are saying. Or not fully grasping the meaning of gestures, formalities or body language – and looking like a complete fool for not knowing what’s up, as if everyone in the room expects you to. Yes, it’s inevitable – you’re going to look like an idiot from time to time. It’s something you have to expect, and accept beforehand. Going abroad teaches you humility. And God only knows that for our generation of entitlement and ambition, a little humility is not a bad thing. But eventually you get the hang of it: you learn the language, the regionalisms, and you begin to understand what is culturally appropriate and what is not. And that fear you had when you arrived slowly fades away. Then, upon your return, when you hear the language or witness the culture of your host country in Canada, it no longer seems so foreign, so strange. Instead of feeling uneasy or anxious, an anxiety whose birthplace is fear, you feel excitement, nostalgia and understanding.
Going abroad transforms fear into appreciation, and it teaches us patience, humility and adaptability in the face of difference and foreignness.
Third, the virtue of acceptance and compassion. The Dalai Lama once said that “love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.” Learning to embrace another culture – or at the very least learning that there are other cultures and that neither one is superior to the other – is the starting point towards a more compassionate world, a more understanding world, a more human world. When abroad, you understand what it means to be the other, what it feels like to be the outsider, the new kid, and to be labelled for being a Westerner, North American or Canadian. It’s an unsettling feeling to know that you do not master your surroundings. To avoid isolation and loneliness, you must leave your comfort zone – big time. Leaving your comfort zone can also be a new awkward feeling. But once you’ve done it, and lived through it, you in turn feel so much more for our immigrants and newcomers in Canada that are not from here. Who do not know, who do not situate, who do not know how to contribute. Who do not understand how our government works. Who may not speak perfect French or English – or none at all. Who feel lonely and vulnerable. You then understand what it’s like – because you’ve lived through it, thus feeling compassion for the other, for the outsider on your turf. It’s unavoidable and it breaks down ignorance towards difference, making way for sympathy and kindness.
Going abroad reminds you what it means to be the ugly duckling, so that when the black sheep arrives on your home pastures, you feel compelled to lend a helping hand.
Lastly, the realisation of pluralism and the call for action. I use the world pluralism as opposed to diversity because the latter has a positive connotation, while the former is more neutral. Said otherwise, pluralism may include diversity in a societal or multicultural sense – diversity of ethnicities, of religions, of traditions, of sexual expressions, of language, etc. – while diversity does not always include pluralism in its broad meaning. Going abroad does expose you to diversity, but above all it exposes you to pluralism. It shows you that the way to live, the way to view and interpret concepts consists of a number great than one. Notions such as human rights, or universality are subject to pluralism, and may consequently have different meanings abroad. Values, history, law and reality are forcibly plural in the sense that there are more than one. While this may seem obvious by nature, it becomes real and personal when you see it, live through it and experience it first hand. In my case, I saw abject poverty, societies defined by the legacy of colonialism linked ever so intimately with race and class, the “right” of rule by men, the continued historical marriage between Church and State, the sustained status quo towards homophobia, and the list goes on. In spite of the “universalization” of human rights, you still see this pluralism of realities abroad – not that Canada is exempt from violations of human dignity and freedoms.
The reason it’s important to witness this pluralism of realities is because you can then decide what to do thereafter – a call for action and awareness. Speaking of Chile’s twenty years of dictatorship, once exiled author and now Senator Isabelle Allende wrote, “The world must know about this horror that was taking place parallel to the peaceful existence of those who did not want to know, who could afford the illusion of a normal life, and of those who could deny that they were on a raft adrift in a sea of sorrow, ignoring, despite all evidence, […] away from their happy world there were others, these others who live or die on the dark side.” Truthfully, many of us in Canada can indeed afford to live on that very raft. But going abroad forces us to see different realities and societies, and to see how their values coincide with your own. They beg the questions: “What is troubling about this situation?”; “What fascinates me about this nation?”; “What now troubles me about my home country of Canada?”; or “What do I now appreciate that much more about Canada or about being Canadian?” It’s a two-way stream. As such, going abroad often shapes our field of study, opens new scopes of interest, and almost always contributes to our future careers and aspirations – whether that be in Canada or elsewhere.
Going abroad forces the actual, tangible realization that the world is not homogenous, and in turn calls us to reflect upon how our values and background can be a tool for change and progress both in Canada and beyond.
To conclude, Saint Augustine is right in saying that the world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page. While “reading only one page” is not necessarily a bad thing, I cannot imagine why you wouldn’t want to read several pages, or multiple chapters in the most thought-provoking and important book of all, the book of the World and Humanity.
All this to say : yes, go abroad because it will make you more marketable and you will most likely will have the trip of a lifetime. But remember that going abroad is more than just about CVs and fun. It completes the story. It defies fear. It cultivates acceptance and compassion. It showcases pluralism to incite dialogue, change and action. That’s why you should go abroad. And that’s why it’s so important to do it now, during the potpourri of critical ideas and thoughts of your postsecondary adventures.
Stéphane Erickson holds a Bilingual Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Alberta and is currently a J.D. and LL.L. candidate in the Programme de droit canadien at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law.
In high school, Stéphane partook in two Social Studies and French-Language trips to Europe and Vietnam, and one humanitarian mission to Nicaragua. During his time at the University of Alberta, he did an international business internship at Canadian Consulate in Guadalajara, Mexico; an exchange at the Universidad de Chile in Santiago de Chile; and an international relations and policy internship at the Permanent Diplomatic Mission of Canada to the Organization of American States in Washington, D.C. During his current studies at the University of Ottawa, Stéphane has completed a legal internship in public law on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, and an international law internship at the Embassy of Canada to Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras in San José, Costa Rica. He has also traveled to Peru, Argentina, Uruguay and Cuba. He speaks French, English and Spanish.
Photo taken by Stéphane in Costa Rica (August 2013)