Studying abroad should be more than just an opportunity to try out the hottest international clubs. If you want to have a truly meaningful experience abroad, choose your destination if possible based on family history and heritage.
Although my family has been in the United States for several generations, I’ve always had an interest in my ancestry. My mother’s side hails largely from Poland, and on my father’s side I’m Czech.
In the spring of 2018, like hundreds of thousands of other students, I got the opportunity to study abroad. Since this privilege usually only comes around once, if at all, the decision of where to spend an entire semester away from home was a heavy one.
It’s easy for foreign cultures to get lost in the United States’ melting pot. I knew the list of countries that made up my genetic background, but as the generations passed, my ancestors’ stories, recipes and culture had been virtually erased.
I ended up abroad in Prague, Czech Republic, not because I wanted to party or pick a random place on the map, but to get a glimpse of what had been missing from my family since my third great-grandfather left the Czech Republic in 1878.
The Institute of International Education reported that 40 percent of American students, about 130,135 students, who studied abroad during the 2015-2016 academic year were based in either the United Kingdom, Spain, France, Italy or Germany.
While some students may choose these locations because of family heritage, others are simply drawn to the ease of access to English and similarities to U.S. culture. I believe studying abroad in a comfortable environment limits the experience of being immersed in a culture.
After researching program costs and courses, I would encourage anyone interested in studying abroad to consider this process a one-of-a-kind chance to explore your cultural history firsthand.
As I walked down the cobblestone streets of Prague, I often felt the gravity of the experience I was living. I got a glimpse into the life I might have had if my ancestors had never left. Every time I spoke Czech to a cashier at the grocery store or was mistaken for a local, I felt even more connected to my ancestry.
I received the gift of an in-depth appreciation for both the Czech Republic and my life in the U.S. I became aware of how much the transition to the U.S. had removed from my connection to my ancestors.
The pressure immigrants face in the current political climate to assimilate to U.S. culture is an escalated version of that of the past.
Researchers from the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research looked at occupational data of immigrants during the age of mass immigration between 1850 and 1913 and describe how immigrants often worked in low-skilled jobs and struggled to close the occupational gap between themselves and natives.
Stanford research also showed that a large part of the effort to successfully assimilate included immigrants giving their children names that sounded less foreign. As children entered school, they were taught to speak and write in English, creating another separation from their own culture.
It was this process that made my cultural experience growing up more tied to the United States than to any other part of my heritage. Studying abroad allowed me the unique opportunity to reconnect.
In the Czech Republic and Poland, I took photos of my ancestors’ homes and villages to show to my family.
I learned how to really pronounce my maternal grandparents’ last name from a Polish tour guide. I got to share this pronunciation, which had been lost over generations, with my entire extended family.
In this sense, my time abroad was more than a chance to find myself. I left with a greater understanding of how I fit into this world and a feeling of closeness to where I come from that has changed my life.