This past Fall semester, English student Jessica Berg contributed two posts in which she discussed her experiences studying abroad in Ghana. You can read those previous entries here and here. In her latest blog post, Jessica reflects on her experiences after being back in the US for several months and discusses the way traveling to Ghana has shaped her thinking.
It’s easy to list the tangible facts I’ve learned about Ghana. Information about the culture, language, politics, and art can be categorized and discussed without much difficulty, although the sheer number of details I could recount requires too much time and space to do Ghana much justice in a blog post. The hardest part about understanding my time abroad hasn’t been understanding the physical facts about Ghana, but coming to terms with the changes I’ve made as an individual and the different perspectives I’ve acquired. While it’s considerably more challenging to explain this part of studying abroad, I think it’s an important thing to do. After spending a semester back in the United States, readjusting to the usual routine, I’ve had time to gather my thoughts, and I’d like to share the most worthwhile things Ghana has taught me.
One thing I’ve noticed about life in the United States since coming home is that things happen here too quickly and too stressfully. In Ghana, nothing happens on time, and people are laid back about almost everything. Many foreign students had problems adjusting to the slow pace of Ghanaian life, and it’s not hard to see why. When coming from a place like America, where being ten minutes late could signify an insult or disaster and where time is at least as precious as money, living in Ghana is frustrating. We all had to learn the value of patience like we never had to growing up in the States. We also had to accept the fact that there are many, many things outside of our control and that cooperation from other human beings isn’t a right but a privilege.
Attending classes in America again reinforced what I had learned in Ghana about time and agency. I had been abroad before Ghana, but nowhere in the world made it so clear to me that these two things are not treated the same in every country and culture. Humans have been measuring time for centuries, but it’s our way of thinking that assigns it value. The American Dream and other similar philosophies have shaped the American assumption that people can control the circumstances of their life, often down to the minute and sometimes years into the future. Not all humans think this way. In fact, perhaps it’s not always healthy to think this way. I found it difficult to readjust to American life because I had adjusted so well to the Ghanaian way of thinking. It was hard to accept the fact that I could not force things to happen exactly when I expected them to while I was in Ghana, but once I did, life became oddly peaceful. In contrast, American timekeeping and structure feels abrasive, almost suffocating. It’s worth every student’s time to take a break from the usual routine and go abroad to experience a different way of thinking, if only to learn to slow down and take it easy.
Another important thing I learned between my time in Ghana and the following semester back home is how difficult it is to understand the world when you’ve never seen it. This lesson seems obvious in theory, but in practice, it is far more difficult to understand than it seems. In a classroom, we have little recourse but to refer to our own manner of thinking, acting, and existing, and we are easily fooled into thinking we can understand other cultures and patterns of thinking by comparing them to our own. In many ways, this is true; to some extent, people can never escape their cultured patterns of thinking, and oftentimes it’s better if they don’t. There are times, however, when a person’s cultured pattern of thinking limits his or her growth with regards to the larger world. Sitting in a classroom comfortably reading the world through the lens of one’s own culture is one of those times, especially when the students believe they truly understand what they are reading about. This is not a criticism so much as a call to action.
Until a person is immersed in the culture he or she is attempting to understand, there is no way for that person to take into account all the minor elements that shape the thoughts and actions of the cultural group in question. Until he or she hears from the mouth of a local what it means to defy family or tradition, it is almost impossible to pass judgment on their ways of acting. America is individualistic, and every time I go abroad, I understand what that means a little better. Americans often think that everyone in the world should follow their dreams and fall in love and fight for a better way of living, which incidentally coincides with what we believe to be a better way of living, but that is not always what everyone in the world can afford, or even what they want. This begs a longer discussion, but I firmly believe that students who go abroad are able to understand the cultural institutions that enable or disable people from acting in the individual way Americans sometimes do. That’s more valuable than I am able to stress in a short blog post.
My time abroad has proved to be worth more to me than the cost of the stay, the credits I earned, and the adventurous reputation I received, and I highly recommend that students be encouraged to study outside the United States. I know that time is money in our culture and that tangible results are sometimes necessary for some people to rationalize how they spend their time, so I won’t downplay the general benefits of study abroad, such as resume building and earning credits. In reality, though, this isn’t about educational credits. It is about individual growth. It is about developing empathy for people who live far away when all we had before was sympathy or, worse, pity. It is about suspending judgment on people who do not react the same way as we would in all situations. It is about becoming comfortable with being kind to people whose mannerisms might have been off-putting for their foreignness. Becoming a well-rounded, decent individual is hard to sell, but it’s the best reason to travel outside the U.S. Study abroad—it’s good for you.