Intercultural Communication: One Long-Term Benefit of Studying Abroad

Photo Courtesy of International Student Advisory Board

Meg Winnett

As one of the two domestic International Student Advisory Board members, I feel that I am only able to contribute to the group because of the life-changing and ethnorelative experiences I had while studying abroad; in particular, moments of real intercultural communication during my conversations with domestic students. My semesters in other universities around the world continue to enrich my daily life, including encouraging me to continue making international friends.

When I lived in Argentina — a predominantly Spanish-speaking country — I met several people who were willing to take the time to listen to my broken, grossly accented Castellano because they wanted to have conversations with me. Their kindness and patience was not lost on me, and I was grateful to them for prioritizing an international friendship, even if the conversation would not be easy.

However, not every international student can relate to my experience. During ISAB’s winter quarter InTALKnational event (in which we surveyed international students about their experiences at UCSB), as well as a series of one-on-one peer interviews, several UCSB international students told us that they were not particularly close with any domestic students. They mostly blamed this distance on language barriers and cultural differences.

I would argue that to some extent, it should fall to domestic students to challenge these seemingly insurmountable discrepancies through intercultural learning, including possibly studying abroad.

According to Western Oregon University’s Victor Savicki, the “dynamic disequilibrium” inherent within studying abroad can be conducive to personal growth and development. Living outside of one’s comfort zone and facing cultural differences head-on can help one become more “interculturally competent.”

When I was abroad, people were willing to be patient with me to make me feel welcome, and I will never forget that kindness. Perhaps if more domestic students challenged themselves to go to new places or even learn about other cultures, we could all learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. These language barriers and cultural differences don’t need to hinder potential lifelong, transcontinental friendships.

I cannot imagine the bravery, grace, and dedication to academic excellence it must have taken for my international friends to move to a new country as teenagers. They left behind their families, cultures, continents, and languages for (at least) four years in order to pursue the best higher education in the world.

I struggled to leave for just one semester, even when I had my return ticket in my pocket! And afterwards I let others applaud me — and I ardently congratulated myself — for being so courageous and independent as to live in another country.

Don’t get me wrong — I loved my time abroad and I think about it every day with fondness, and I am proud that I challenged myself. But I have to concede that it was a relatively short length of time compared to my entire undergraduate experience, whereas for international students it is their entire undergraduate experience.

I don’t mean to set up a dichotomy here that assumes that domestic students, whether they go abroad or stay in state, aren’t as brave or “cool” as their international peers. I am instead proposing that domestic students like myself should make much more of an effort to interact and establish friendships with students from other places.

Studying abroad taught me how to be okay with feeling uncomfortable, and now I am even more open to making friends with people from all over the world. If more domestic students were to make that choice to leave the United States in favor of adventures in new places, they might just find that the self-confidence they glean from their travels will continue to benefit them years afterward.