I’m going to admit right up front that this post is a shameless plug. I want to encourage you – any of you who consider yourselves students – to study abroad, and I want you to study a language while you’re doing it (hopefully in France, but if you want to join my colleagues in Spain next year, that’s OK too).
Some of you are thinking, “There’s no way I’m going to do that. This post is not for me. I’m going to stop reading now.”
I know, I know. There are many obstacles to studying abroad. I can’t afford it, you might say. “I don’t have the time. I don’t know enough French to study abroad in an intensive immersion program like Drury’s in Tours, France. Besides, my parents say study abroad is just a tour or a vacation in disguise.” What are some of the other reasons that discourage or prevent you from studying abroad? Please let me know in the comments section. I’m serious! I’m open to your comments, and I hope you’ll keep an open mind, too, and keep reading, despite the fact that I’m now going to move into the hard sell.
Money is available! Generous funding from the CW Titus Foundation has been making language study abroad affordable for Drury students for years. True, preference for these scholarships is given to students who intend to major or minor in their language, but it is not a requirement. Most recipients are awarded $2000, which usually represents at least one third of the trip’s cost. You’ve never studied French? No problem! Complete beginners are welcome to study French in Tours. In fact, you can fulfill your entire foreign language requirement in just one month by studying in Tours! The program can also count as an Engaged Learning experience for CORE and fulfill the Breech study abroad requirement. The “Tours Program,” despite its name, is neither a tour nor a vacation. You can earn six hours of credit because class hours are long, and living with a host family ensures that you are as fully immersed in French language and culture as possible. Cultural excursions to historic sites are mandatory, so learning continues on most weekends as well. It’s a challenging program that engenders a rewarding sense of accomplishment and empowerment. But I won’t deny it! Many students – usually curious people who delight in new things – think studying abroad is an incredibly fun, transformative experience.
“All that sounds great,” you’re thinking, “but the opportunity cost is too high. If I go abroad in the summer, not only do I have to pay for the program, but I also won’t be able to earn money by working at home.” This is a good point. But consider the opportunity costs of not going: think about how competitive the job market will be when you graduate. A challenging study abroad experience can make a job or graduate school applicant stand apart. One of Drury’s seniors just received tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of funding to complete a PhD in French Literature next year. That student studied abroad not once, but twice. Although not required for his major, in his field the study abroad experience was practically indispensable, and boy did the investment pay off! You certainly don’t have to be a French major for that to be the case, but even if you don’t plan to major or minor, why not make the most of your study abroad experience by including the study of a foreign language?
Every week, a new article comes out summarizing the benefits of studying a foreign language: you’ll earn higher wages, you’ll be more productive, your standardized test scores will improve, you’ll be more attractive (who thinks a French accent is unattractive?) and more marketable, plus many of the richest countries in the world are trilingual. Furthermore, by being forced to frame basic utterances in new ways and studying the cultures where the target language is spoken you’ll learn to adapt and interact well with a wide variety of people. Employers appreciate that sort of thing. Many of us in the Humanities like to dismiss these practical and monetary reasons as secondary, but international airline tickets are expensive, so they deserve some respect. Here are some even better reasons: studying a foreign language improves cognitive skills and thus can improve your performance in other disciplines. It can even ward off Alzheimer’s for a few years! It’s an excellent mental workout. Undertaking the analysis required in the study of any foreign language will also improve your written and oral communication skills in your own language. (In order to reap these benefits throughout your undergraduate studies, start taking your foreign language courses during your first year at Drury!)
On top of the benefits of studying a foreign language come the rewards of studying the Humanities when you study a language abroad. Some of my colleagues have written on this blog about the power of stories to engender empathy. Studying abroad has this power as well. At the end of one of our summer programs, I asked my students to name something they had learned from the experience. One student replied that he had lived with an international student at Drury and he had been unkind to him. But after spending a month in France, my student understood just how hard it can be to live in a foreign country. He said he would treat an international student differently now.
Shelly Wolbrink writes about being “thrown out of the typical lecture and enter[ing] an examination of nineteenth-century French culture through the lens of steamed asparagus, petite madeleines, and Fortuny gowns.” She explains beautifully how narratives we examine in the Humanities allow us to enter an “alternative world.” Implicit in this statement is that there is great value in entering another culture. Study abroad is your chance to literally enter an alternative world! It’s the Humanities Lab. It actively engages your senses and your emotions, enhancing your learning experience. You’ll see the asparagus and might be surprised that it’s white! You’ll feel the slightly firm madeleine, smell it, dunk it, taste it yourself, and immediately be transported to the time you read Proust. When purchasing your asparagus and madeleines at the local Monoprix, your listening skills and cultural assumptions will be challenged as the checkout person insists, in a language you do not yet command, that you find a different form of payment than that 50 euro note you just handed her. You can’t possibly expect her have enough change in her register to cover that!
Resa Willis writes, “Reading or writing a poem, creating art, watching a play or movie, listening to music, contemplating history or philosophy helps us celebrate the good times and bad ones of everyday living.” Why not contemplate some of that history where it happened? Feel the cold stone of Chambord castle, read Ronsard’s poetry at the Prieuré de Saint-Cosme, where he lived, feel the sea breezes at Mont-Saint-Michel and Saint-Malo, or play the organ in a cathedral, as a Drury student did! Allow yourself to be forced by your host family each evening to slow down and celebrate the everyday pleasure of a long, multi-course French meal, declared a site of intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO. Study abroad: it’s the Humanities, but concentrated.
I might be taking this slightly out of context, but Peter Meidlinger states, “In our undergraduate years, especially, we should embrace the luxury to try on these lives as if they were our own.” Reading’s power to allow us do this is plenty to validate the study of the Humanities in itself. But why not push further? Take the intellectual and emotional challenge! Try on a French life. Don a scarf, live in France with a French family, get to know the people, and ask yourself, “Can I live like this?” Embrace change. Dare to think differently. You’ll be surprised how much you’ll learn about yourself and your own country. Perhaps you’ll even apply a lesson you learned in France to improve our own democracy.
What do you say? Have I convinced you to study a foreign language abroad? Please share your thoughts. What can Drury do to make the study abroad experience a reality not only for 50% of graduates but for 100%?
 Brown, Melissa. “The Benefits of Learning a Foreign Language.” Fairbanks Dialy News-Miner. 30 Mar. 2014. Web. 1 Apr. 2014.
 Wolbrink, Shelly. “Challenging the Master Narrative.” Human, All-Too-Human. Drury University. 13 Mar. 2014. Web. 14 Apr. 2014.
 Willis, Resa. “Life 101.” Human, All-Too-Human. Drury University. 10 Mar. 2014. Web. 14 Apr. 2014.
 Meidlinger, Peter. “Living Options.” Human, All-Too-Human. Drury University. 19 Feb. 2014. Web. 14 Apr. 2014.