Abroad, coddling not an option

Most students at private universities have heard the term “spoonfeeding.” It’s a condescending way of referring to the many extra perks — from small classes to free printing — that private schools provide.

Julia Vann | Daily Trojan

There’s a study abroad version of the private school experience, too.

If you want to study abroad through USC, you have three main options: doing a direct exchange with a foreign university, studying at an American university campus in a foreign country or signing up for a program that facilitates study abroad students.

If you’re lucky enough to be choosing between a few locations, it’s smart to figure out which of the options are available to you and what they each entail.

While abroad, being backed by a program is comforting. It provides a place to turn in especially sticky situations.

Programs that facilitate studying abroad, however, can sometimes go too far in their efforts to make things easy on students.

Studying abroad should be fun, but it should also be a learning experience; universities can’t justify sponsoring tourist vacations.

Although study abroad programs should not leave students unsupported, they should focus less on giving students short cuts and more on exposing them to the host country.

My current program in Amsterdam is a fantastic one, and I’m almost 100-percent satisfied. There are times, however, when I still feel spoonfed.

In Amsterdam, you can get virtually anywhere on two wheels, so it’s smart to buy a bike. On my first day, program staff escorted us to a rental bike store, where most of us purchased shiny new bikes, to be returned for cash at the end of the semester.

Many people assumed this was the smartest option — perhaps the only option.

The problem was, our bikes were so new and shiny three were stolen almost immediately (and a few more since then).

We have since learned that in this city, it’s smarter to buy cheap, rusty bikes that attract less attention. It’s a lesson we could have easily put to use if we weren’t directed to a rental store on our very first day.

Whenever I double-lock my gleaming bike, I feel less like a local and more like a tourist. That’s not a good mindset if you’re supposed to be truly  immersing yourself somewhere for five months.

I also sense some spoonfeeding in a class I’m taking through the program.

It’s a beginner’s Dutch class and half a crash course in cultural understanding. Learning Dutch has been helpful: I’ve found myself proudly pronouncing impossible-looking words (try “alstublieft” for fun) and reading ingredients in grocery stores. The language portion makes perfect sense, as knowing even basic phrases helps me immerse myself in the day-to-day life of the chosen country.

But the culture portion? Some days, I call it “Not Embarrassing Yourself For Dummies.”

For example, we’ve received papers outlining the so-called basic Dutch mentality — not in essays, but in simple sentences. We’re encouraged to write about what we think the Dutch mentality is, too, but papers like that impose an instant artificial framework.

That might be useful for a businessperson who’s studying in the Netherlands for a week, but we’re here for a semester.

We should be given freedom to understand the mentality of a foreign culture ourselves, with as few preconceived notions as possible.

The process would likely involve more awkwardness and frustration,  but we would come out of it feeling far more independent — and more equipped to deal with that awkwardness and frustration.

Plus, how large is the difference between perceiving the Netherlands through an American lens and perceiving it through a Dutch lens constructed by Americans?

There are ways for study abroad programs to provide learning experiences without handing students information on a silver platter.

For example, my program has organized trips to areas of the Netherlands many of us would have probably neglected otherwise.

We had time to explore the new cities on our own. We were given a few suggestions, but we were not given detailed information on how these places were different from Amsterdam, our home base.

I found it was a pleasure to spot the differences myself.

The services programs provide vary by region. Eastern Europe is not Western Europe, and Western Europe certainly isn’t Africa.

But programs shouldn’t go too far beyond providing region-appropriate safety nets.

Why hand students manuals when you can help them write their own?


Maya Itah is a junior majoring in communication.