LYON: Students studying abroad are representatives of U.S.
Opinions Column: London by Knight
I have met loads of people from all over. In my experiences so far being an international student in London and traveling throughout England and its neighboring countries, I’ve been lucky enough to meet and mingle with a fair mix of people from all over Europe and elsewhere. Many of the people I meet in London naturally happen to be from the U.K. and sometimes even the City of London itself, but I do meet tons of international students as well, who are navigating the city just like myself but from a different background.
Every time I meet someone new, as a rule the first thing I am routinely asked is, “Where are you from?” I am usually then hit with a follow-up question inquiring whereabouts in the United States I’m from, and after the questioner’s excitement (or more-often-than-not indifference), people absolutely simmer with inquiries about the States, and oftentimes are prepared to discuss the upcoming election and display knowledge of current events as if they had just absorbed a whole copy of the NYTimes.
Since I am abroad in the midst of an especially attention-grabbing election season — which is probably an understatement — I have obviously been prodded with questions from the delighted and curious, the concerned and the frightened who are just trying to assess whether or not we can continue friendly relations based on which candidate I’m planning to vote for. I, of course, share this experience with all my fellow Rutgers students attending university in London, and the vast pool of American students studying abroad in different programs all over the world.
At my pre-departure orientation for Rutgers students studying abroad in the U.K. and Ireland, we were all told we would be representing our country and our University. Along with all the other information I received that day, I admit I chewed it down but didn’t think about it too much. The orientation lasted for hours, and although it was very helpful and I find myself using a lot of what I learned to aid my experience here every single day, it was a lot to fully absorb and understand in such a condensed period of time. I think I could only fully understand my impact once I made it across the pond. We, students abroad, are all representing the United States in some way, and this is whether we like it or not.
I am just one person, interacting with people and having conversations about American politics and European food, traveling and London’s exceptional public transportation system, wine and beer and then beer and wine (just kidding). But there are so many people just like me, doing similar things all throughout the world, meeting people and making conversation, having their brains picked or picking brains. In 2013, there were almost 290,000 young Americans studying abroad, according to the Institute of International Education’s Open Doors report. That's more than one-quarter of a million people dispensing information just as often as they received it.
At my pre-departure orientation in April, I did not realize the small impacts I was bound to have in shaping so many individuals’ perspectives on the U.S. and on American people. Actually being here has allowed me to recognize the duty I have to dispense accurate information and to carry myself well. I realize how I am representing our country and myself every single time I step foot out of my flat.
When I do this, though, it doesn’t feel tedious or like anything resembling a burden. It’s so interesting and rewarding to engage with people from different backgrounds. Of the people I’ve met and conversed with, the overwhelming majority are just curious, friendly people who want to converse and learn about another person and how different their lives and countries are. Many of these people are fairly critical of America and disagree with a lot of what is going on in our country in the same way that many of us do. These people easily separate the individual from the government and American tourist stereotypes.
I’ve found the key to representing America well, in my limited experiences in this part of the world, is to be open-minded and curious. I have done my best to put ethnocentrism far aside and actually listen to other people and be willing to discuss a variety of topics and learn from other people. There is undoubtedly a positive relationship between making efforts to be respectful and being treated respectfully in return.
Abigail Lyon is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in economics and theater arts. Her column, “London by Knight,” runs on alternate Thursdays.
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