One of the more valuable educational experiences of my life was the semester I spent at La Universidad Católica in Montevideo, Uruguay. It was a whole lot of fun, but beyond that it was very educational. In terms of the classes I took, it was so-so. Two of my classes were great, one good, one not so good, but this was not the point. The takeaway overall was learning the worldview of people outside the United States.
I lived in Germany when I was in second grade, but I went to the US school on Bitburg Air Base, and I was too young to really grasp it all anyway. Since then I only lived in the US. Being from the border and having a Mexican stepmother I had some understanding of Mexico, but this too was through the US filter. Only when I was in Uruguay could I really see the world through the eyes of somebody else.
There were a few reasons I picked Uruguay. For one, I had always wanted to study abroad, it seemed like an adventure, but there was always some reason why I couldn’t for the coming semester. After I transferred undergraduate schools I felt like there was no reason not to go. I spoke bad Spanish and wanted to get better, so I decided it would be South America. At the study abroad office they gave me the list of choices. Uruguay was negligibly less expensive than Argentina or Chile, but what captivated me about it was that to me it was just about as far away from home as I could get. I knew nothing about it except that they spoke Spanish. Perfect.
I fell in love with the place. It is a small country with practically no influence on the world scale, and the people have no national mythology about how their country is better than everyone else’s. It is sometimes referred to as the Switzerland of the Americas. It is a very cosmopolitan Latin culture, and really has a lot of the best features of a lot of places.
There’s no one thing that can encapsulate the experience—if there were, I would already have had it before I went. It’s a lot of little things. People there know about the US and are generally sympathetic to it, but it’s just one country among many that interest them, and not the primary one. In Uruguay (and Argentina as well) they consider themselves very European, so European countries are the foreign ones they like the most. To people in the US, it’s all too easy to think of our country as the center of the world. The world is much larger for them.
History is taught there not as a long prelude to the founding of the United States and thereafter as the story of the United States on the world scene, but as a more complicated story with many parts. Even regional history deals with the other countries as full partners. Granted, Uruguay is a small country and interlocked with its neighbors far more than the US did, so it’s not that they consciously chose a better way to teach history. That’s the beauty of it, really: there’s no way somebody from the US could learn history that way unless he or she went abroad.
Since I’ve been back I’ve noticed much more keenly how little international relations in the US is treated as actually international. There is the US, and there are a bunch of tools that can be used for our benefit or against it. As it turns out, foreigners are people too. They have the same concerns and pleasures as we have, and deserve our consideration. It’s easy to agree in the abstract, but it’s in your bones when you’ve lived among them.
I recommend studying abroad for as many undergraduates as possible. It becomes much more difficult to live abroad for a spell once you have a lease, a job to go to, and all these other adult things. It’s possible to get a job abroad, but then your life really transfers there, and you may not want to go abroad for the long haul. Some lucky few can go abroad for work long enough to “live” there without having to move their whole lives, but this is a rarity. For those without the chance to have the experience, well, if you can find a way it will be worth the trouble.