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College Comment
Europe Minus the Europeans

This past spring break, I went to Spain. I wandered lots of nameless streets and drank lots of labelless wine. I chit-chatted with German housewives in Sevillan hostels. But most of all, I observed a centerpiece of many college educations: The Semester Abroad.

To be sure, a semester abroad means a wide array of things. There’s the sink-or-swim homestay, from which people—even some of my best friends—have emerged singing French, Italian, or Mandarin like the proverbial nightingale. There’s the hardcore direct enrollment in a foreign university, in which students study alongside the native speakers.


Yankees abroad no longer have to limit their Americana fixes to food and culture.

But as my suitemates and I wandered the barrios and bars of Madrid, Seville and Cordoba, we often encountered a different breed of American student entirely. These students lived in the best of all worlds. They basked in the less-rigorous academic standards of study abroad programs, yet avoided the annoying need to capitulate to “local customs.” They didn’t suffer through “authentic experiences” in place of good American ones. After all, we’re number one.

The international symbol of this type of student-tourist was the cell phone. Lest any of these hyper-connected foreign-experience mavens be unreachable, even for un minuto, the familiar strains of electronic “Fur Elise” or “The Entertainer” were there to remind them—and everyone within 30 meters—that “getting away from it all” is passe.

But why just talk to other Americans, when you can hang out with them too? One night in Seville, my suitemate Corey and I happened upon a gathering of students from an amazingly diverse set of backgrounds. There was Corey’s friend from eight years of summer camp in New Hampshire. There was a guy from Ohio who is my high school chemistry teacher’s cousin. There were several exponentially New Yorkish New Yorkers. What didn’t our merry bunch have? Answer: Spaniards. Oh well.

This home-away-from-home trend is an American college student’s godsend. It’s long been true that any time we crave a hamburger—be it in Brasilia or Berlin—we can head to the local McDonald's, where everyone knows Ronald’s name. But now, Yankees abroad no longer have to limit their Americana fixes to food and culture. With the swarms of students making the study abroad leap, they can find cheery, transplanted bubbles of fellow Michiganians or Tulanians within their very own Spanish city.

My message to my fellow collegians, then, is that we no longer have to endure the outdated notion of “authentic experience.” Sure, there are still some traditionalists out there who would have you forcing out a few Spanish sentences to a host brother and choking down a few bites of enigmatic local stew. They'd even have you paying for toilets.

Pay no heed. When in Rome, get your photo taken in front of the Sistine chapel, dial up the local study-abroad contingent on your cell phone, and head out for some real glory days at Mickey D’s.  the end


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