Studying Abroad as a POC: What’s Not in the Brochures

BY: CAMILA CISNEROS

I knew for a fact that I wanted to study abroad in college. It was a big factor in choosing a college, so I thoroughly analyzed study abroad programs. When junior year came around, I was more than ready to embark on my journey to Spain. As a Colombian-Venezuelan American, I was used to juggling multiple cultures and felt as if I were truly prepared for this experience. But American University’s attempt at a “cultural shock” workshop fails to prepare you for is studying abroad as a POC.

I studied in the AU Madrid Center. First of all, there should be a trigger warning before allowing Latinx students to study in Spain. On every corner there seemed to be a memorial of some kind dedicated to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, and their accomplice, Christopher Columbus. In other words, I had to witness the worshipping and idolization of the people responsible for the murdering and raping of my people. Which again, can be pretty triggering. While some people have condemned the violent history, many still applaud their actions and still consider them to be heroes.

The most prominent impact was the wealth disparity within my program. It’s no secret that study abroad programs are insanely expensive on top of our already overpriced tuition. Fortunately, study abroad grants allowed me to go abroad.

However, there was a difference between myself and students who were paying out of pocket. I saw people go on lavish trips every weekend, eat in fancy restaurants, and go shopping in the most high-end places Europe had to offer. There was no sense of financial awareness or responsibility.

It is a major stressor to be abroad and have to budget your heart out. Students often can’t work, so there’s really no steady source of income. The best advice is to save, save, save. But just be prepared to book hostels while your peers stay at the Ritz Carlton. At least back in AU, the dorm halls somewhat hide the vast unequal distribution of wealth amongst its students.

If you do end up choosing an AU Center, be aware of AU students. Consider a program where you can be around local students or even international students. But I strongly recommend against a program where you’re surrounded by the same 40-50 people, mainly because AU students tend to see study abroad as a vacation rather than a learning experience.

I saw people showing up to class excursions hungover and people skipping class to go to happy hour, not to mention people getting in trouble with their homestay families by showing up drunk and being messy. There’s probably people like this in every abroad program. However, with an AU Center, you can’t escape them. It’s the same people you have class with and have to travel with, which can make or break your study abroad experience.

Since you don’t have a say on who gets to be in your program, the best option is to do a program that provides the opportunity to interact with a variety of people and you’re not confined to the same group on a daily basis for a semester.

Also, if you are a woman of color, you have to be twice as careful. Countries with colonizing backgrounds do not usually see curvy bodies within their societies, but it is definitely something that is borderline fetishized. Comments will be made, looks will be given, and harassment is almost unavoidable.

It’s interesting to see how it is only acceptable to have “exotic” (as I have been called) people in your country for viewing pleasure, but not when it comes to humanitarian purposes. Moral of the story: don’t be the Pocahontas to any of those John Smiths.