Opinion | The study abroad dilemma: twin sisters discuss their differences

Twins Natalie and Angela van Winden debate whether returned study abroad students are justified or pretentious.

Natalie van Winden
Web Editor
@natvanwinden

Imagine this: your friend has a life-changing experience – let’s say something like leaving the country they’ve always known to study in a foreign place away from family, friends and the comfort of home.

They are gone for four to six months; they have adjusted to this new place and way of life. They grew as a person, as a friend, as a global citizen. They spent their savings paying for flights, trains, hotels, et cetera.

They finally make their way home to the good ole U.S. of A. You missed them so much while they were gone and they missed you. You go out to eat to catch up. They want to share their experience with you. You listen for a bit, but then it’s over. The conversation moves on. After that, you reply to every mention of their travels with a text that might go something like this:

“OMG, I get it, you ~studied abroad~ What are you saying, that Europe changed you?”

Your friend feels embarrassed, annoying and completely invalidated. They try to never bring up their study abroad experience again for fear that it’s bothering and no one cares.

I recently got back from my study abroad program in Nijmegen, Netherlands, and I could talk about it for hours. The problem is, before I went abroad, I always thought I was in on the joke. Now that I’m home, I want to be able to mention where I went and what I saw without cringing at myself.

When I want to talk about my experiences, I want to feel like there is an open, accepting space with my friends who haven’t gone abroad. I’m not trying to shove it in their face or say that I’m better than, I’m just relating or adding to the conversation with my own life experience – an experience that now happens to include a semester in Europe.

All I’m saying is leave study abroad kids alone. Let them talk about their experiences. Don’t mock and tease your friends for having a life-changing experience that they want to share with you. I’m sick of my experiences being invalidated.

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Angela van Winden
Ecology and evolution major at UC Santa Barbara

I like that students have the opportunity to go abroad. It’s fun to hear stories about it. Like the time my sister fell down the stairs in the tube in London. I like to hear about how she went out with friends and what life was like.

However, when she told me she was writing this article, I had a few of my own thoughts to add.

I never went abroad. I’m an ecology and evolution major at University of California, Santa Barbara, and although I thought about it, the programs that were structured to my study offered by my school left me with less places to choose from. It may have been possible to do something like my sister did – not have to worry about which classes to take and getting to travel around – but it would have been much harder. Plus, I want to graduate on time.

And although I don’t think it factored into my reasoning, I also just don’t like the way study abroad kids can act after they get home.

It’s one thing to share your memorable experiences with friends and family. Those stories are valid. It’s another thing to act like you’re better than someone else because you had the opportunity to go abroad. I feel like it’s something study abroad kids might not even realize they do. Sometimes my own sister does it. I’ll use her as an example, since I’ve already said this to her face.

She acts like I couldn’t understand how meaningful of an experience it would be to go abroad, like I couldn’t possibly fathom what that would be like because I didn’t go abroad. I respond with mockery or jokes because to me, it’s ridiculous to act like I can’t empathize with something so important. We’ve all done important stuff, even if it wasn’t going to Europe for six months.

Other times, it’s when study abroad kids imply that they know more about the world than I do. I just don’t need to hear how I’m doing things wrong or that I’m inferior.

The verdict

After having this debate over lunch, we felt like it’s probably good to share both perspectives of those who have been abroad and those who haven’t. Even though we are twin sisters, we are very different people with different values, insights and feelings. We never knew the other felt the way she does when the topic of Natalie’s semester abroad comes up.

So maybe now, Natalie will work on sharing her experiences through storytelling and memories, rather than discounting Angela’s ability to understand where she is coming from. And maybe Angela can be more open to hearing those stories and validating them before judging or mocking them right off the bat.

And would you look at that, another fight resolved. Don’t worry, we still have plenty more to go.