Reality is the Best Romance Abroad

As the traveler who has once been from home is wiser than he who has never left his own doorstep, so a knowledge of one other culture should sharpen our ability to scrutinize more steadily, to appreciate more lovingly, our own. – Margaret Mead, Coming of Age in Samoa

A convenient way of getting to know a town is to find out how people work there, how people love and die there. – Albert Camus, The Plague


You’ve probably heard of education abroad as an experience that will expand your worldview, nourish your soul, enchant your senses, and change your life. You may have also heard accounts of language barriers, missed flights, culture shock and homesickness. This divide between romance and reality isn’t specific to education abroad, but it is especially pronounced here. So, how should we approach education abroad: realistically, or with a spark of romantic optimism? It is my belief that for students abroad, reality is the best romance.

In the introduction to Margaret Mead’s ethnography of adolescents on the Samoan island of Ta’u, Samoans are the idealized ‘other culture’ through which we can learn more about our own. Although this anthropologist is wary of ethnocentrism, the goal of her research is ultimately to answer questions about adolescent development in the United States, not in Samoa.

You don’t have to be a famous anthropologist to romanticize your study abroad program. It’s true that education abroad allows us to develop different perspectives about our home and our place in it. However, it’s possible to reject ethnocentrism and still approach education abroad in a self-centered way. We take pains to post the perfect Instagram shot documenting our experiences. We pose before monuments, exotic animals, towering Gothic cathedrals, smiling children. #nofilter #inlove. The focus is all on us, as we learn to live in a new place but view the people who call this place their home as just another part of the landscape.

Enter Camus. Let’s be realistic about his statement. What kind of response would you expect from stepping off a plane and asking the first person you see: “Hello, how do people die here?” And yet, the French word used in the original work could also translate to “practical.” The focus of this exploration is not on convenience but on the practices and lived experiences of real, working, loving, and sometimes dying people. For Camus, a place is inseparable from the people who live in and shape it.

So, I propose we all take a page out of Camus’ book, put down our cameras phones, and start a conversation with someone. Getting to know people isn’t convenient. But realistically it is the only way to expand a worldview, nourish a soul or change a life. And when realism meets hard work, the romanticism of education abroad becomes truer than even the most authentic #nofilter pic.

Photo courtesy of Kelsey Dillon.


Kelsey Dillon is senior at the University of Kentucky studying Anthropology and French. Kelsey participated in the ISEP Exchange-Aix-Marseille Universite program in Spring 2015.