Study Abroad: Why it Matters Now More than Ever

Adrian Doyle, Director of Study Abroad

We live in a society where news is reported faster than ever. The role of peer-to-peer social media platforms has sped up this process, and has allowed common citizens to become rogue journalists simply by snapping a photo or a video, writing a few lines, and posting it online for the world to see. This has created an environment of near instantaneous global knowledge of breaking stories and events. But what we gain in speed, we often lose in depth. It seems like most news sources now provide more opinions and speculations from pundits than the reporting of actual facts. It is easy to react publically in the heat of the moment, before the full stories are reported, and add fuel to the fire of online trolling and bickering.

As our various news feeds increasingly call our attention to political divisiveness, social conflict, and terrorist activity, we must be careful to process this news and these events in a contextually intelligent and emotionally mature manner.

If there were a single quality that I would like every one of our students to acquire or strengthen while they study abroad, it would be empathy. We have all heard the adage about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. In Thailand, where I lived, studied, and volunteered for two and a half years, I learned a phrase which I’ve come to believe is a more perfect definition of empathy. “Ao jai khao maa sai jai rao.” It means literally to replace your own heart with someone else’s.

At Jesuit institutions like LMU, we talk regularly about matters of the heart. We do not shy away from confronting emotion. We balance intellectualism and knowledge with service and spirituality. This is the essence of what a successful Study Abroad experience can provide: an environment which requires students to reflect constantly and to reconcile their cultural assumptions with the reality of new experiences and emotions. This process of reconciliation helps students gain a perspective of cultural relativism—the notion that one’s own cultural traditions and beliefs are neither better nor worse than anyone else’s.

This fundamental perspective is vital to the eradication of prejudice, bigotry, and xenophobia, which continue to plague our world and our communities. Media reports of domestic and global conflicts can only divide us if we continue to misunderstand and fear the social Other. The practice of learning about and assimilating to a new cultural environment shows us that we can adapt to new customs and practices, and perhaps even permanently alter some of our own beliefs and thought patterns, while still remaining who we are. Understanding the fluidity of social attitudes, political leanings, and even identities, helps us appreciate the arbitrary nature of culture and makes us less apt to make snap judgments against people who appear different.

At a time when we are assaulted daily by stories of social conflict, it is essential that our society is grounded with a strong foundation of empathy. We must respond—emotionally and actively—with love for all humankind. Studying Abroad has the power to enact powerful changes in students’ hearts and lives. As more students graduate and leave the LMU gates with a strong sense of global empathy, and as they become leaders in their chosen careers and communities, the world becomes a better, safer place.