Same and Different: The Return of Study Abroad

Submitted by Sophia Choto on

Returning to travel (again)

By Nick Barr

At the time of this writing, I’m getting ready to step onto a plane for the first time since the pandemic began. I vividly recall sitting in a meeting at the UW Study Abroad office in March 2020 when the World Health Organization officially declared a global pandemic; we had no idea then how much things would change in our small corner of the world, let alone beyond it. I doubt we have fully reckoned with it yet.

To make a long story short, we have gradually been able to resume CHID’s study abroad programs, though not without significant challenges. We have lost some of the strong word-of-mouth reputation among students across UW after long breaks between programs. Program directors and students have had to deal with COVID infections while abroad, alongside the usual contingencies of travel. This pales in comparison to the challenges faced—often with far fewer resources—by some of the communities with which we partner abroad. When we further consider the negative impact that our flying has on climate change, we are reminded that we must be intentional about study abroad and try to mitigate its historically extractive tendencies. Things can’t and shouldn’t be what they used to be.

Yet even as we emerge humbled by the past few years, we delight in the excitement that makes travel meaningful—especially for our students, many of them leaving the U.S. for the first time, and for ourselves as program leaders, taking students to places and communities that are special to us, often both personally and professionally. In a beautiful essay titled “The Quiet Power of Visiting a Place Again (and Again),” Dr. Anu Taranath, Teaching Professor in CHID and English and a world-renowned expert on the ethics of travel and study abroad pedagogy, shares her experience of revisiting the Malleshwaram neighborhood of Bengaluru, India, at different stages in her life. The Proustian recognition sparked by the “fragrance of jasmine and champak flowers'' is inseparable with multiple senses of loss: “Malleshwaram feels the same and different, probably because I too feel the same and different each time I am here.” Through attentiveness to the places and people they encounter, students can share in some part of this experience, whether or not they will return again. This is a gift, but—or “but/and,” as Dr. Anu always says—a fragile one.

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