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Why you should consider studying abroad someplace other than Western Europe.

I’LL FESS UP – I studied abroad in Aix-en-Provence, France, an emblem of the European study abroad experience with it’s idyllic stone fountains, sidewalk cafe culture, boutiques, bright photogenic markets, and pigeon-filled plazas.

I don’t regret it; it was my first time overseas and I squeezed every inch of experience out of it. I took a week-long bike trip from Aix through the Camargues (Provençal cowboy territory). I hiked across the island of Corsica and labored for half a summer in a French vineyard. I smacked my tooth into a plaza in Naples and drove to the furthest tip of Sicily. Travel was planted in me and hasn’t stopped growing like ravenous ivy ever since.

But if I could recommend a study abroad experience to someone else, it wouldn’t be in Europe.

Now that I’ve traveled and lived so many other places, I understand how easy that experience was. I studied entirely in French at the Institut des Etudes Politiques, but there was always English in the background just in case; the culture, while stunningly different to me when I arrived, was navigable and familiar enough to get a feel for; the food was different enough to glamorize but not so different that it produced late night, sleepless cheese cravings.

More importantly, the school (the University of Wisconsin-Madison) set the whole thing up and walked students through it in baby steps. If I could go back in time, I’d use all that organizational help and power to go someplace which is extremely difficult to navigate bureaucratically and institutionally on one’s own – someplace, say, like Senegal, or China.

I’d like to study in these places now, but the prospect of negotiating my way alone through the Chinese university system (something which another university, this time one I was teaching for, did for me in 2007) is daunting at best.

Having professionals guide you through the process of studying and living abroad eliminates a massive bureaucratic and technical headache.

If you’re already paying tuition at a university, then studying abroad in South Africa or East Asia is like a free ticket through all the complicated hoops you’d need to jump on your own in order to set yourself up with a life in one of those places.

Then there’s the personal growth factor. Did I grow in Western Europe? Did France change me? Yes. Did it rock my world, shake the foundations of my cultural assumptions and beliefs? No. It gave me an appreciation for the little things. As Europe has so often done for Americans, it fine-tuned my senses and made me realize how much I was rushing around from stimulation to stimulation in a progress-driven frenzy.

But in comparison to the enormous blow to my ego and worldview that was one day in Beijing, that year in Western Europe was an afternoon drinking wine in the park. Same with South America. My travels there were of a very different nature than anything you’d do on most study abroad programs – I crossed the continent alone, on buses, with a budget of wads of horded coffee shop tips. I camped most of the time and hiked Patagonia on oatmeal, pasta and alfajores. Sure, it’s unfair to compare this with what’s possible within the limits of a university program.

But the experiences and the awareness of different histories, circumstances and worldviews I got out of that trip so superseded those of my year in France that I can only wonder about what I might’ve thought, done, or attempted had my first experience abroad been in Lima or Caracas.

I spent those seven months in South America testing the boundaries of my daring and independence and exploring ways to get immersed in places, to get as far from my comfort zone as possible, to connect with people of vastly different cultural backgrounds. I realized I hadn’t pushed myself that far in France because it wasn’t as necessary. South America challenged me far more than France ever had.

This isn’t to say that study abroad in Latin America or Africa or Central Asia is an automatic porthole to mind-blowing travel breakthroughs. And it isn’t to say that Western Europe is incapable of stirring up such breakthroughs, or that it isn’t important or worth seeing.

But I think that if your first immersion travel experience is someplace other than Seville or London, it might have an entirely different impact. It might shape the way you see the world in more profound, troubling, and lingering ways.

The number one thing study abroad in France taught me was that there are infinite opportunities to do whatever insane thing you’re thinking about doing. Before leaving for France, I wouldn’t have ever considered living in a vineyard and working 10 hours a day to pay for a hike across Corsica. I would have thought it virtually impossible to drive a van from Cairo to Capetown, or to bike across Patagonia.

After that year, I know that if I really want to go live in Rwanda, if I really want to teach in Japan or to ride a motorcycle through Cambodia, I can do it. I’m not wealthy – I am extremely fortunate to be in good health and to have the personal and political freedom to travel if I want. I’ve paid for every travel adventure I’ve ever had by working or saving.

So my realization of the magnitude of opportunities for travel wasn’t simply a realization that I could spend money roaming continents or dappling in exoticism; it was the realization that I didn’t need to have tons of money or privilege to travel.

I think going someplace that is not Western Europe would reinforce this realization tenfold. It seems unfathomable to many Americans to walk across East Africa, or to live and study in a small Chinese village. Studying abroad makes this seem possible, and the realm of possibilities just keeps expanding. If you start out with an opportunity that seems frightening and difficult to fathom, imagine how vast the possibilities could seem afterwards.

Finally, and most importantly, the U.S needs people with empathy and understanding of regions outside of Western Europe.

Studying abroad is one of the easiest and most powerful ways to create consciousness of the way people think and live in many different areas of the world.

Immersing yourself in cultures that are poorly understood, feared, or dismissed in the U.S can make a world of difference in creating a more compassionate and informed future generation.

Language + Study Abroad


About The Author

Sarah Menkedick

Matador Contributing Editor Sarah Menkedick has traveled, lived, and taught on five continents, and is constantly in pursuit of spicy food, dark beer, and new places to run. She is an MFA student at the University of Pittsburgh.

  • Tanya

    Loved the article, but disagreed with it too. Quote: “Immersing yourself in cultures that are poorly understood, feared, or dismissed in the U.S can make a world of difference in creating a more compassionate and informed future generation.”

    I would argue that W. Europe cultures are often “poorly undersood, feared, or dismissed” as well. How often is France bashed in the U.S.? Freedom fries, anyone?

  • Lauren

    Disagree. For someone first setting out to explore new territory and culture, staying in the Western world isn’t a loss. Too much culture shock can lead to a sense of isolation and a reluctance to immerse oneself. Starting in Western countries and then moving on to other regions is a fine way to go for the new adventurer.

    • Sarah Menkedick

      Hi Lauren,

      I don’t think it’s a “loss” – I certainly don’t see my experience that way. I just think there is a wider range of things to be learned from studying in other places, and the type of understanding that comes from studying outside of Western Europe is desperately necessary in the U.S.

  • Sarah Menkedick

    @Tanya – Definitely see your point about the freedom fries, but I don’t know if I’d call that misunderstanding or fear as much as I would an obstinate refusal on the part of many Americans to accept criticism from other cultures or value their differences. I don’t think the U.S fears most of Europe at all – whereas countries like, say, Mexico or Nigeria or Yemen are certainly feared, and much more misunderstood, I think, simply because so few Americans are exposed to their people and their cultures.

    I think that when a student is really keen on travel, they latch onto their first overseas destination with all their might. If all that travel energy and desire to learn could be channeled into places that don’t have the cultural and economic similarities and ties to the U.S like most of Western Europe, I think that’d go a long way towards creating greater understanding and diplomacy.

    Thanks for your input!

    • Tanya

      I’m still not sold on this idea. We need people who understand all parts of the world, and that include areas like Western Europe. Some of our most critical allies are in there, allies we need to help us confront the big global issues of our time. Let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water here. Yes, it should be easy for Americans to study in a variety of countries and they should be encouraged to do so, but no, we should not suddenly all run away from Europe.

      And I reject the idea that Europe should be dismissed because they’re too similar to the U.S. Just as the Canadians don’t like being told their country is just like America, there are plenty of Europeans who would take offense to such a statement. And they’d be right to. Europe is vastly different from the U.S., in terms of its history, languages, political and social structures.

  • Elizabeth


    I’m currently in Egypt because I followed a lifelong dream. And everyone I met, in the preparation to come here, prefaced all further conversation with the phrase, “Is it safe?”

    Countless debates over covering one’s head and traveling solo as a woman ensued. Eventually I found myself resenting “Europe” because so many people asked, “Why not go somewhere fun?” or “Why not go somewhere where you can travel and shop?” “Go somewhere you can party and be young”. Ignorance at its most disturbing. Here in Cairo I feel like I am exactly where I should be. The traveling here is easy; being a woman is hardly an issue and Egyptians are warm and effusive to Americans to ameliorate the idea that Arabs dislike Westerners. As an expat of 10 years told me yesterday, “This place is magical. You create your own reality here and it will come true. There is no disbelief”. Just like you described in your article.

    On the other hand, I will admit that I am very poorly socialized to Europeans. I’ve known and adored countless Arabs and Indians and Eastern Africans, but never known many Western Europeans. And the few I have known TRULY – have not been kind ambassadors to their countries. I know and accept that this is bad coincidence, and that there are subtleties I’m missing, but it is very frustrating and easy to find myself developing an unfair prejudice. An Irish friend is doing everything he can to wear this down, and I love him for it – which is a great start. It is a fault and something to work on. But an important caveat in why some people are meant for other paths of travel.

  • Valerie

    Great article! I definitely agree with the premise of this piece, even if I am guilty of having lived and studied abroad in Western Europe myself. I don’t regret those experiences at all; in fact, for rookie travelers (which I still was at that point) Western Europe is a great place to break you in to independent travel. I gained the confidence to explore other parts of the world that are usually off the radar of most Americans. But after having traveled to Southeast Asia, South America, and Eastern Europe, I’ve come to realize how (comparatively) little culture shock I dealt with there. I’ve found my travels in Serbia, China, Malaysia, and Uruguay, among other places, to be far more eye-opening and stereotype-challenging than those in France or Spain.

    Incidentally, in Half the Sky, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn actually mentioned an exchange program at a university in the Congo, suggesting that American students would get much more out of studying abroad there than they would in, say, Florence or London.

  • Antra

    Europe does not equal only Western Europe.

    You make a point of saying “Western Europe” a lot, but then other times, you just say “Europe” when still only referring to “Western Europe”.

    Eastern Europe is habitually ignored. While quite linked to Western Europe, geographically and culturally, it is still a world away, and you can tell that as soon as you cross that now-mostly-invisible border.

  • Ahimsa

    Huh, I never thought of it in those terms. On one hand, I wouldn’t trade my year in Scotland for anything. On the other hand, it was definitely a baby step and one that didn’t really prepare me for travel to more exotic lands.

    The most powerful argument, I think, is using the bureaucracy of your school to cut through the red tape of somewhere difficult to get into. However, this wasn’t the case for me…my university did none of the work for me. I had to un-enroll, apply to the University of Edinburgh, and write essays, collect recommendations, and jump through hoop after hoop the next 6 months. At the time, even going to a western country was almost too overwhelming.

    Ultimately I think, for me, taking the babystep was the right thing to do, but it’s definitely not going to be for everybody. And it’s a question everyone should ask not just before studying abroad, but before traveling of any nature.

  • j.c

    I studied abroad in Africa as my first major (non North American) solo trip. My school didn’t have an exchange program that met my needs so I set one up myself.

    It was insanely mindblowingly awesome. And, as a result, I sort of agree with this article but, interestingly, have often wished I studied abroad in Western Europe for a couple of reasons. First, although I speak a second language, spending two weeks in Europe on a stopover greatly increased my skill level and I wonder where I’d be now with six months or a year. Second, Europe is ridiculously expensive on the short haul, and I often wondered if a longer haul would have made it more affordable, and thus accessible.

    I have a girlfriend who studied for six months in Paris and I STILL envy it. Maybe we all want what we didn’t have.

    I can verify your suspicions that being able to study under people who draft the new human rights legislation in southern Africa and fully understand the implications of international trade agreements has given me incredible insight into What Africa Needs and radically altered my views about aid and poverty worldwide. The views I took home are controversial in North America yet dominant in many of the countries where my home country so easily interferes.

    And, having a central home base gave me the security and resources to go on pretty rogue trips that would have been impossible on a two to eight week trip.

    The funny thing is, starting with a long term, fairly integrative stay in Africa sort of ruined me for awhile. If I’m being honest, it made other travel way less satisfying. It was like taking a crash course in heart surgery (stressful but pretty useful) and following it up with the introduction to biology. I came back with the kind of memories people wait their whole lives for, the kind of stuff I could have never anticipated. Yeah, I treasure Paris and Costa Rica was great, but I’ve felt like it was so hard for me to get anything from those places that hadn’t already been experienced, described, and lived, where in Africa I was spoiled by the ease of accessing moments all my own.

  • Aaron

    Okay but seriously, what culture is better understood the US, French or Mauritanian? The are as many francophiles in the US as there are francophobes. On the other hand, hundreds of countries are pretty much ignored my the majority of the US population. Even if an entire generation were to study abroad in places besides western Europe, there would still be plenty of people who understood the French just fine. US children grow up with western Europe in our lives. Its them we study in world history, literature and politics. If we bash them its on a pretty superficial basis. I think being completely ignorant of another country or culture is worse than superficially bashing one.

  • Heather Carreiro

    I’m in total agreement with Sarah on this. Comparatively, it’s much easier for Americans to study and live in Western Europe than in a lot of other place, so why not take advantage of a study abroad experience to live in place that is more of a challenge? Also, you can get a LOT more for your money by studying abroad where the cost of living (and travel) is much cheaper.

    I studied abroad in Morocco for a year and spent my winter break traveling in Europe. What I spent in one month in Europe could have funded six months of travel in Morocco. My study abroad program in Morocco introduced me to government bureaucracy and opened up a whole new worldview for me that studying in Western Europe would not have done.

  • Laurie

    Interesting article and interesting debate. I see both sides. Europe is often considered easier and safer which would make it a good first international experience. There is a lot to learn and a great culture that is grounded in history and the arts.

    More challenging parts of the world provide a different experience. They can open your eyes and you mind in ways that Western Europe may not be able to. Neither experience should be missed, and a student should decide what experience they want and what they want to experience on their personal study abroad.

  • Lexy

    This was a fantastic article — probably one of the most inspiring I’ve read on this website.

    • Tim Patterson

      Agreed. This post is terrific for a lot of reasons, but I especially appreciate the discussion it provoked.

      Personally, I agree with Sarah – studying abroad in a developing country exposes students to a wealth of life lessons that are unavailable in Western Europe. By confronting the realities of life first-hand in places like Cambodia, Bolivia and Senegal, students have a better sense of the world, and their own place in it.

  • moni

    I just got back from an amazing study abroad in Budapest, Hungary. Although Budapest is sadly getting more Americanized is still has enough of what it was to not be Western Europe.

  • Jenna

    i’m a French student, i go the Institut d’Etude Politique in Strasbourg, and i couldn’t agree more.
    But i feel you need to take it one step at a time.
    Last year ( i had just turned 20) i went to Brazil for my exchange year, and had the best exeperience of my life. The culture was different enough and similar enough to my own.
    I did not want to go live in the US (i’ll have that oportunity sooner or later), and certainly did not want to stay in Europe.

    I am now ready for something more “out of the ordinary”, i’m of Mozambique, but not study, to live there.

  • Lauren

    Lauren again. I’m hugely in favor of ANY study abroad/cultural immersion adventure and I think it’s useless for us to quibble the pros and cons of these experiences based on where they take place. Obviously it’s relative and nobody will be proven right or wrong for holding a particular view.

    My point was that sometimes starting out in a Western country (US, Europe, Australia, etc.) isn’t a bad idea for a newbie just wanting to get their feet wet. Not everybody will benefit from being thrown into an entirely foreign culture when they attempt that first solitary international exchange. It’s okay to pace yourself.

    Also, as many have pointed out, Europe is hugely diverse and has much to offer all on its own. This article seemed to lump all of Europe together as one and water it down, implying that a European exchange was mere child’s play. Perhaps the author was trying to encourage his readers to think more broadly about their options but it comes off as travel snobbery.

    • Lauren

      Sorry, Sarah. I should’ve said “her” readers. :)

  • J.P.

    Overall, a well-written and thoughful article
    that has spurred on a quite healthy debate.

    I am doing exactly the opposite of what your article proposes. In college it was study abroad in Asia, Africa, and South America, and since returned to India and Nepal many times. Now I’m embarking upon grad school for art in “Western Europe” in March because it’s my interest, not because it’s easier or less thought provoking. On the contrary. It’s a programme that “fits” me given my current interests.

    I have a problem with saying that going to one place
    or another will bring someone to a more humanly conscious level.
    You can be conscious in Western Europe and unconscious in India.
    Conscious in New York and unconscious in Tierra Del Fuego.

    “But the experiences and the awareness of different histories, circumstances and worldviews…so superseded those of my year in France that I can only wonder about what I might’ve thought…had my first experience abroad been in Lima or Caracas.”

    Hindsight is always 20/20. That’s your experience, but not necessarily another’s.
    A hermetic “what if?” instead of “what is”…
    I do like that you mentioned that your experiences there
    “fine-tuned [your] senses” as all travel does.

    France was your fortunate springboard to other travel experiences.
    Can’t that also be an springboard experience for another student?
    Why go to China if it’s not the right “fit”? Anymore than a student
    studying Nuclear Physics if they’re passionate about Freudian Psychology.

    Again, thanks for putting this article out there!
    It’s great to hear everyone’s opinions and perspectives
    on this topic.

  • Gene

    Woah! A truly HOT AND SPICY article.
    Now I’m confused. I thought it would be great to study in France and Germany. :(

  • Marc

    And why shouldn’t it be great? Just because someone says “Western Europe is too similar to USA”? Come on… As someone said above, you (I’m not from the USA) need to have people who knows different parts of the world, and Western Europe is a part of the world, at least it was the last time I checked a map.

    Do I have to say that some American people think europe is a country? That just means that you people don’t know Europe as much as you think. So, if you wanted to study in France or germany, go and do it. There’s no problem about that ;)

    • Gene

      There you go! Different people really have different views on things. I am now more convinced that studying in France and/or Germany is a good decision especially because their culture, geography and all that jazz are different from what we have here in the Philippines. If I may also add, a person’s appreciation of a particular place is dependent not only on the characteristics of the place itself but also on his/her ability to find beauty in it. Hoho!

      I found the article above HOT and SPICY but I wasn’t really swayed by it. But of course, the article is a good read since it shows a different take on W. Europe. :))

  • J.P.

    Gene –

    I appreciate that Sarah has written a thought provoking article.

    Studying abroad in Asia (China, India, Nepal) was right for me then,
    but my current interests have shifted towards Western Europe.

    I will be studying the Bauhaus and Dada art
    through a historical lens in Germany next month,
    and boy am I excited!

    I feel that choosing a country for study abroad
    should ultimately reflect your personal and academic interests,
    and that’s different for each traveler.

    If France and Germany are what you have
    your mind set on, then go for it!
    If Asia, South America or Africa are what interest you,
    then go for it just the same!

  • Joseph Coiner

    Angry complaints about people that have already studied in Western Europe defending their decision in 3….2….1…

  • Kate

    This article really hit home for me. I am a college student soon to embark on study abroad to Thailand and some surrounding countries, and all I have heard are remarks about safety and comparisons to my friends studying in Western Europe. This article clearly explained my reasons for going abroad somewhere I would not feel comfortable going alone.

    I understand both sides of this ongoing argument, however it surely comes down to the person going abroad. Some Americans are completely happy in their clubbing and drinking visions of the common Western European study abroad experience. And that is that. I believe that if someone knows they want to travel in the future, they will choose to study somewhere less common, maybe a little unsafe, though mostly unknown. They wouldn’t want to wait to explore more distant lands, and would do so while in College.

    I would think most of the visitors to this website, who read articles like this in spare time, would be more understanding of the benefits of being guided through drastically unknown territory, and how lucky it is to have that knowledgeable guide. Otherwise one may never have that experience in fear of going it alone.

    Of course, the most important thing is to put yourself into another culture, at least for a moment, and widen your horizons as far as you wish.

  • Laura

    Great article! Since studying abroad in Rome, Italy I have traveled to China, throughout Central and South America and I am currently living in Mexico City. My study abroad experience was my first real independent travel experience and my first time leaving the U.S. These days I enjoy living in Mexico City, but I tend to think that if Mexico City had been my very first travel/ living abroad experience the culture shock might have been too much. Sometimes it’s not a bad idea to take things one step at a time. It all depends, of course, on the individual, as does the travel experience itself. Either way, it’s great to see that this article has encouraged such an interesting debate!

  • Jessie


    I just wanted to say great article, and I really do agree. I did my first study abroad in Senegal actually (funny that you mentioned that one) and my second one in Malta. In both experiences I had to relearn everything from how to go to the toilet properly to dealing with so-called “Mediterranean mentality”. I loved the challenge of living in these places and feel like I’ve gained a strong understanding of simply how to navigate and adapt to unexpected circumstances or ways of thought. I also think that learning the process itself is applicable to trying to understand Western Europe, and, honestly, since both countries were former colonies, I was given the chance go understand Western Europe from a post-colonialist perspective as well. Sure, the trip I took around Western Europe after leaving Malta felt so incredibly easy, but at the same time it meant I had to invent more and more creative ways to go about it, which included trying to see the connections between, well, everywhere.

    Anyways, thank you for putting this bit of advice out there, because I would say the same.

  • Urs

    I just read this article and can see both sides of the argument. In two weeks I will be going to Spain for a immersion program through my school for Spanish. Being said that, I will be volunteering with the immigrants from Morocco and Algeria. I think that Western Europe was generalized in this piece, but that is alright. In France there are plenty of French-Algerians that aren’t considered part of the “French” culture, but they are. For people that want a different experience in these “countries” that is so American like, then look for the minority populations and see how they are living in that environment.

    I can see the flip side as well. There seems to be a large number of Americans, only saying this because I am american, who travel to Western Europe for a good time. But from what I have been hearing is to not be around these people. You make your experience what it is.

    I have been to Jamaica and South Africa on study abroad and look forward to a “European” experience. Being that I am also black, my experience will be different from my fellow white and asian students.

    Good Article overall!

  • study abroad in asia

    I think for sure, the biggest difference between studying abroad in Western Europe and anywhere else is the cultural aspect, the non-”western” viewpoints that are taught in daily life. Also, I think people who want to go to Europe to experience a different culture are looking for different answers in their curiosities versus those who decide to go to Asia instead. Of course, there isn’t a true right answer but certainly the best way would be to experience all if not as much of it as you can.

  • Raizel Albano

    Thanks for this article! Studying anywhere in abroad is really a life changing experience; but as for me, I don’t really care if the university’s the best… as long as I enjoy the environment. don’t get me wrong, I do accept change, and I love it. but there’s this gut feeling that if I like the environment, no matter how “unsafe” or “boring” it is, I’d go for it. :)

    I also did a post, “Why I Never Considered USA for Graduate Study” here:

    Hope you could also share your insights :)

  • Jade Graddy

    As someone studying abroad in Morocco this fall, the last paragraph of this really resonates with me! I will need to cite it the next time I get a funny look when mentioning my study abroad destination.

  • Jade Graddy

    As someone studying abroad in Morocco this fall, the last paragraph of this really resonates with me! I will need to cite it the next time I get a funny look when mentioning my study abroad destination.

  • Jade Graddy

    As someone studying abroad in Morocco this fall, the last paragraph of this really resonates with me! I will need to cite it the next time I get a funny look when mentioning my study abroad destination.

  • Jade Graddy

    As someone studying abroad in Morocco this fall, the last paragraph of this really resonates with me! I will need to cite it the next time I get a funny look when mentioning my study abroad destination.

  • Jade Graddy

    As someone studying abroad in Morocco this fall, the last paragraph of this really resonates with me! I will need to cite it the next time I get a funny look when mentioning my study abroad destination.

  • Jade Graddy

    As someone studying abroad in Morocco this fall, the last paragraph of this really resonates with me! I will need to cite it the next time I get a funny look when mentioning my study abroad destination.

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