Last semester, I never thought that I would consider studying abroad in South America. My mom’s incredible notions about the danger of merely thinking about going to Cuba or learning more about indigenous cultures in Mexico would get to me every time I sat down to really think about it. For some time, I was pretty convinced that I was only thinking about doing it because it was the “Amherst” thing to do during junior year (according to the study abroad section on the Amherst website, roughly 35-40% of the junior class studies abroad). Obviously this was the wrong way to regard such an experience, so I began to put things a little more into perspective.
From reflecting on my service trip to Thailand three years ago to discussing my academic motivations with professors I deeply admire and love on this campus, I searched for appropriate reasons as to why I should study abroad in the fall. I thought about the interests I’ve had since my early days in high school: graffiti, poetry, revolutionary art (Chicano/a art), identity politics, Malcolm X, museums, and even my love for John Coltrane’s “Sentimental Mood.” I spoke to upper-classmen at Amherst, Dean Behrens, my major advisor, friends, cynical juniors who regret staying on campus for the year and even my younger sister who just thought that I shouldn’t travel anywhere that wasn’t England.
But I often disregarded the most important question of all: Sharline, why do you want to leave the country? Like fellow AC Voice writer Marie, who wrote an article about being part of the 55% at Amherst who will not study abroad, I also realized that there is so much I still want to do here. The professors in the American Studies department that I still want to meet, awesome fall courses to take, exploring Northampton and shopping at Urban Outfitters, the people and the books I have yet to know—the list goes on. But then there’s another side telling me that I would simply be a fool to miss out on an opportunity like this.
And then something happened after I declared the American studies major. I thought back to freshman year and everything that I wanted to study, from Caribbean and African- American literature to the history of Latinos in the United States. I thought back to the conversations I once had with my freshman year professors, my involvement in La Causa on campus and that Spanish class that I fell in love with during my first semester.
That was it; the pattern could not have been any clearer. I didn’t want to go to Europe to study English literature at Oxford—I was only considering it because of the prestige that came with it. I didn’t want to go to the Netherlands even if my high school mentor’s husband went there when he was undergrad at Notre Dame. I wanted to study abroad in a Spanish-speaking country to learn more about Latino cultures other than my own. Because I had not taken the time until this semester to take courses related to Latino or Latin American studies, I wanted to continue to do that abroad. The idea of traveling back to the Dominican Republic to learn more about my culture suddenly struck me as a real possibility when I found a CIEE program in Santiago, the city where I was born and raised for three years before immigrating to the United States with my father. The idea of traveling to Nicaragua to conduct research on how the Revolution of 1979 has impacted the lives of politically and socially engaged youth is unfolding before me as I write my research proposal.
Interestingly enough, according to a report by the Center for Global Education, one of the ten reasons why many Hispanic students consider the study abroad experience is to explore their heritages. Many Hispanic students travel to Latin America to explore the countries where their families have roots, and have come back home with a new perspective on themselves as Americans and as Hispanic Americans.
The opportunity to do a comparative study between the United States and Latin America for my senior capstone project is what I know will be the end result of this experience. But for now, I am just trying to figure out what everything that I want out of this experience, as opposed to what my mother, my sister or my professors want for me. After all, I’m the one who is going to take a plane to go live somewhere outside of the United States for four months of my fall semester junior year. Therefore, for those of you who are still considering study abroad, remember that this is an experience that is for you and not for others.