"You're Very Brave!": The Problems of and Potential for Study-Abroad Programs

Often when telling westerners where I was moving for work, I would get variations of the same reaction, all of which involved surprise. “Oh! Is it safe?!” “Didn’t something bad happen there?” “Wow! You’re very brave!” Or I’d get reactions based on the spotty knowledge* these individuals would have of the countries in which I’d be involved: “Didn’t a genocide happen there?” or “Oh! Idi Amin.” I would often be asked if I was going as a missionary or to work for an NGO. The assumption always seemed to be this: I was going to an unstable place, and I must be going with the intention of giving of myself for the betterment of those in the developing world. In reality, I worked for an American university-level study-abroad program based in Kigali, Rwanda. Students from various colleges in the states would come to spend a semester in East Africa, where they would learn about the history and culture of the region, take trips within Rwanda and Uganda, and complete a month-long internship at an organization, hospital, or school.

Having participated in study abroad programs as a student, I was already a firm believer in such a method of education. Working for a study-abroad program reaffirmed this belief. A program situated in a developing country posits this question to its students: what can you learn from this place? Such a question confronts the pervasive western mentality that it’s the westerner who can do something for the developing world, which automatically places that world in a position to be pitied, and the West to be above it. But such a mentality becomes complicated once it is confronted, not just with education, but with real life experiences in these places. Partaking in a study-abroad program in a developing country allows one to benefit from a world that is not their own by expanding worldviews and giving texture to areas of the world that are often simplified.

Though I am an advocate for study-abroad opportunities, such opportunities should be checked as a privilege of the West – we need to ask ourselves why this opportunity is so lopsided. It exists for the West, but opportunities for those of the global south to learn within the context of the West is rare. If we are advocates for study-abroad programs, then we should be committed to the goal of opening possibilities for those of the global south to also gain such experience. At a time when “strong men” governance is looking to build walls and empower xenophobia, study-abroad programs can no longer mean that it’s the westerner to whom this privilege belongs. Instead, study-abroad programs can be utilized to break down these walls, but only if the experience can be reciprocated.

*I blame western media coverage of the developing world – not these individuals.

Katherine Thompson currently works as a geopolitical researcher for an economic research firm in Chicago. Besides previously working in Rwanda and Uganda, Katherine taught ESL in Montreal to international students, all of whom enriched her worldview.