While LC trumpets the value of studying abroad, those who cannot participate feel alienated
Waiting for the Pio on the first day of the semester, I clutched my brand new notebook against my chest and huddled beneath the exit roof of PSU’s Shattuck Hall. Alongside me were a few other Lewis & Clark students dodging a searingly cold rain that was still working on washing away the last of the gutter slush of this particularly harsh Portland winter. The students were upset about the Pio’s tardiness on the first day. It was within the first five minutes of listening to gripes that someone began to bring up how they just spent half a year “wandering around Southeast Asia, where every bus arrives promptly at the displayed time — rain or shine.”
Everyone around me returned a knowing nod, one which I couldn’t engage in. A group of friends then began swapping stories about international transit, culture shock, life changing work, all of which are certainly done with great economic consciousness “on the cheap,” as I’m told the exchange rates are always working in their favor. I stayed silent. It would have felt silly to mention the differences between LA Metro and Trimet. This is because LC is a college that measures social capital in passport stamps.
Full disclosure, I have left the country — one time. Pre-9/11, as a wide eyed five-year-old living in New Jersey, my family went to Buffalo with my grandparents for a weekend. We wanted to see Niagra Falls, a “Natural Wonder” that drops six million cubic feet of water per minute. Since the postcard part of the cascading falls exists in the United States, it requires going to Canada for the view to be visible. It was a trip lasting all of 20 minutes. All I remember of the falls was asking my dad if the people in the boats below would be crushed if they went underneath. I also recall crossing the border. When the Canadian authorities holding rifles asked me — where are you from? I told them emphatically — the United States of America. They let us pass, both ways. There was no need for a passport.
According to a 2014 article published on the LC website, “more than 60 percent of Lewis & Clark students go on an overseas program.” Now don’t get me wrong, this is not an attempt to make a broad disavowal of the Overseas Study program here. Assuredly there is a lot of good it brings to some. Rather I’d like to question how it’s deep entrenchment in this school’s system, to a point that it’s almost assumed that everyone does it. It’s no mystery. Looking at any LC pamphlet or the Admissions page of the website and it becomes clear that the “Overseas Study” is integral to how the school is advertised, touting the “more than 35 programs in 26 countries” like an an ad for Carnival Cruises. On the sidebar the program is the seventh option, right below “Life After Lewis & Clark” and three spaces before getting to “Transfer Students” and four before “International Students”). While this is by no means a clear ranking of value, it nonetheless resembles some degree of importance given to the program and one that is simply not feasible for some students.
The monetary concerns aside (like how scholarships are labor where one gambles for their income), my first month on campus it became fairly clear that if I didn’t plan a trip my first semester I wouldn’t be able to study abroad. Even then my advisor insisted on the invaluableness of these programs, despite both of us looking at what credits transferred over, what classes counted for prerequisites (almost none) and which counted for my Rhetoric & Media Studies major (absolutely none). I shrugged this off, however. I never visited LC before transferring, never took a campus tour where I would have gotten a sense of these aspects of the campus culture. All I knew was that I loved Portland the one time I visited, that Liberal Arts was a valued education model (though one totally foreign to me) and that I would get a pretty sweet scholarship. But this interaction with my advisor would be more of a warning for just how much people would talk about the program later. In the classroom, trips to Europe with family or through school come up often. I’ve heard people describe “culture shock” no matter they place they go — which makes sense, but “culture shock” is something I felt just being on this campus.
Last week, my mom called me and asked if I wanted to go down to Mexico with her after graduation. What a lucky and special experience I could get to share with her. But, still my first feelings were of guilt, something not unfamiliar when I think of home in Los Angeles. LC became my first time at a private school, first time hearing the term “global citizen” (conveniently without any reference to global corporate capitalism), first time with class sizes under 20 since kindergarten. It’s also the first time since eighth grade that military recruiters didn’t make weekly trips to school during lunch for pull-up competitions to collect student email addresses. I used to yell confused half-thoughts at them, not having the language to say “Military Industrial Complex.” Once, I got pulled aside by an Iraq Veteran so that the football players could try to out pull-up each other without provoking one of them to call me a Commie or a nastier, actual slur. The veteran was surprisingly warm and understanding, probably trained to talk about all the humanitarian work that they did feeding Iraqis to kids like me. I walked away half angry thinking I was the only one who was appalled by the recruiters presence and half angry at myself because he seemed like a genuinely nice guy. He talked to me like we already knew each other. On some level I think I understood that this was the way out for so many people. I hated it.
Right now, my best friend from elementary school lives only a few hours away on a Navy Base ready to “see the world,” and it scares the shit out of me. Thinking about travel and my home hurts precisely because this friend is by no means the only one. Over winter break I was sharing a beer by the beach with a good friend from high school. Since leaving community college he’s losing his Student Visa status and his mother her Work Visa. His options are slim. Either continue living with an expiring visa with his family, go back to Korea and be drafted into their military, or enlist in the United States army earning a pathway to citizenship through “naturalization” (while also losing his Korean citizenship). He chose the latter and in an indeterminate amount of time will be off to the armed forces. On the beach that night he mentioned what I did to the recruiters in high school, afraid that I wouldn’t approve of him. I had no idea what to say. There are few people I have more respect for than him and his commitment and sacrifice for his loved ones. And while my unwavering idealism was stupid, it doesn’t change how scared I am for what his selflessness can mean. It can feel at times as though I’m a traitor, not to this country, but to my community, old friends, who weren’t encouraged to go the academic route.
I’ve heard the old adage a million times, especially from the working class conservative family of mine, that Americans are rich when compared to places around the globe. And this is true for many. There is so much humanitarian work and scientific research that needs to be done, and undoubtedly this sometimes happens on Overseas Study programs. But so often this notion of righteousness is used to mask that much of this is tourism—something that should go without saying, is essentially a luxury vacation with a side of class credit. And I’m certainly not advocating that vacations are not valuable or should be seen as necessarily shameful, far from it. Though, it just shouldn’t be viewed as a “requirement” for the complete LC experience. I’ve doubted my worthiness, my cultured-ness, my education, my lack of commitment to being a “global citizen,” something I recognize probably says more about my own self-esteem. I’m graduating this May, and I take pride in getting to bring home the same degree as my fellow students. And maybe I’m just starting to realize that I’m growing still, that my education is as incomplete as the next person.