I still remember my college year abroad very well. As part of my degree in Modern Languages at the University of Bradford in England, I spent six months in France studying Russian, and six months in Germany as a trainee translator. I then went to Southern Russia for six weeks the following summer. In Paris, I remember french fry machines on the street, eating impromptu student meals of cheese and baguette, and visiting museums whenever entrance was free. In Munich, I remember being tongue-tied in German on my arrival, early-morning tram rides to work, and a visit to the Dachau concentration camp. These are just random moments from the rich experience of that year abroad, an experience that was more than the sum of its parts. My active foreign language skills certainly improved, but that was only part of it. I no longer looked at the world solely from the viewpoint of England. I was now able to look at England from the outside. More importantly, I no longer looked at people solely from an English viewpoint.
As a program director in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Cambridge and Prague, and as a visiting professor at Leiden, I have had the pleasure of seeing students collecting their own moments abroad, and viewing the world differently on their return. Pedagogically, in-country instruction obviously offers unique opportunities to enhance foreign language skills and a broader cultural awareness. The St. Petersburg program is as close to an immersion program as can be offered in a period of six weeks. Homestays with Russian families and instruction by local Russian teachers allow the students no time to ‘hide’ from Russian. The cultural intimacy of this experience is quite simply irreplaceable. The Prague program too, while it is not intended primarily for Czech language instruction, offers Prague as a living laboratory for the exploration of, for example, the ways in which Czech culture addresses its extended periods of occupation first by the Nazis and then by the Soviets. The range of possibilities for instruction expand enormously in-country.
I find it especially reassuring that many of my students returned from their summer programs only to apply immediately for a semester of study in England, the Netherlands, and Hungary, or for a year-long program of study in Russia, Israel, and South Africa. This is clear evidence of their personal and intellectual transformation while abroad. They are now viewing America from the world, rather than the world from America.
We can certainly measure these experiences abroad in terms of improvement in language skills, of richer historical knowledge, and of enhanced cultural receptivity. So I salute those students who went to Auschwitz after a grueling all-night bus trip from Prague, and those students who came with me to a Lenin museum outside of St. Petersburg, even though I was unsure it still existed. But as I am sure these students would attest, abiding memories can come from unexpected sources. So I also salute the student in St. Petersburg who called me late one night convinced he had giardia; the student in Prague who missed the bus to Plzen and found his own way there; the student who was pickpocketed in Moscow and had settled the whole matter before I could get there. I even salute the student who checked out of our hotel in Moscow without his shoes. This is the small stuff, and in many ways the best stuff, that makes study abroad their, and my, experience.
Frederick Corney is the James Pinckney Harrison Associate Professor of History at the College of William & Mary. He took his Ph.D. at Columbia University, and teaches Russian and Soviet history at the College. His research interests are in early Soviet revolutionary culture. He has directed or taught in ten study abroad programs.