General Education

Surprises You May Find While Studying Abroad

Surprises You May Find While Studying Abroad
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Greig Roselli November 7, 2014

Studying in a foreign country means encountering a new culture. Check out some learning experiences that surprised students the most during their time abroad.

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The number of American students who study abroad has tripled over the last twenty years. In 2013, the total number of U.S. students who participated in study abroad programs was 283,332, according to the State Department’s Open Doors study.

Studying abroad affords you the opportunity to experience other cultures, and you’re likely to encounter a set of cultural and educational norms vastly different from what you’re used to.

Read on to learn about classrooms around the globe, as students share the cultural differences they experienced studying abroad.

Surprises in Latin America

In Mendoza, Argentina, Anastasia Anazonwu, a student from Columbia University, studies abroad with IFSA-Butler (affiliated with Butler University), and takes classes at the Universidad Nacional de Cuyo and Universidad de Congreso. Reflecting on classroom differences between the U.S. and Argentina , she says that “lectures are more like dialogues between student and professor [in Argentina],” where the student is seen as “an active participant, by asking questions and clarifying doubts continuously throughout the lecture.”

Tony Behan, who studied at the Instituto Allende in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, spoke about how the educational system is structured around other social norms. Tony’s classes began at 7:30 a.m. He was able to take a siesta at noon to rest, but returned to class from late afternoon until late evening. “As far as my education there, it was very hands on and practical,” Behan says. “Because I was learning the language and art, it was very practical in nature.”

Surprises in Europe

I studied Philosophy in Belgium at K.U. Leuven, where I had to adjust to lecture-style teaching and oral examinations. It was not unheard of for the professor to walk into the lecture hall a few minutes late, speak eloquently for one hour and fifteen minutes, and in the last thirty seconds, pack her briefcase and be on her way, never once asking her students for questions or discussion.

Preparing for oral examinations can be stressful, especially if you are used to paper and pencil. The notion of dressing up in a coat and tie, appearing at the professor’s desk while she prepares a question on Kant’s theories, was terrifying. However, I grew to appreciate it.

Hugo Garza, a student from the University of New Orleans, is studying in Graz, Austria, as part of the International Student Exchange Program (ISEP). Garza says students knock on the table when the class ends: “It’s like their way of clapping.” Instead of open-ended discussion, classes are an intellectual performance that demands applause.

In Europe, academic life often continues in street-side cafés as students share ideas over a beer or macchiato before class. Garza, who also studied in Liege as part of Louisiana’s CODOFIL study abroad program when he was in high school, was surprised when his professor offered students beer. The drinking age in European countries varies, but it is not uncommon for teenagers to enjoy drinks after school.

During his first week in Avignon, France, Marco Altamirano, who was a student at St. Edward’s University, recalls going to a restaurant, where he ate quickly and asked for the bill immediately after finishing. “Two Frenchmen, who were sitting at the table next to mine, were looking at me curiously,” he said, “like one looks at a little monkey eating a banana, saying things like, ‘I don’t understand the American mentality.’”

After watching another American do the same thing — sit down, order food, and then ask for the bill and leave — Altamirano realized that the Frenchmen were not being jerks. “They were honestly surprised that someone would come into a restaurant just to eat perfunctorily, without appreciating the food or the environment, and leave with as little ceremony as they entered and ate.”

Altamirano reflects on the experience, “I stayed for awhile after they left, enjoying an espresso after my omelette. Of course, I didn’t stay native for very long. I eat quickly again now, and usually in front of a computer. Espresso, however, I still drink.”

Surprises in the Middle East

In Jordan, Columbia University operates a Global Center in Amman. Monique Williams, who studied Arabic for nine weeks and lived with a host family, says, “One of the many lessons I learned was the importance of language, the privilege of being an English-speaker, and the doors that can open and close due to the barrier of language.”

Staying with a host family — rather than living in a dormitory — while studying abroad can broaden your experience, and give you new ways to think about familiar concepts. Students who do homestays talk about the personal encounters, the interaction with family, and the friends they make as an essential part of their experience abroad. Williams said that staying with her host family was formative. “In Amman,” she said, “the extended family was the main social circle.”

Since family and personal relationships are so important in this culture, spending time in social interactions — even if they go past the period you had set aside — is valued over adherence to a linear timetable.

Surprises in Africa

Serena Piol, who taught English in Marrakech, speaks about the relativity of time there. She says, “Here 8 p.m. could mean 8 p.m., but more likely it means 9 or 9:30.” Differences in the perception of time are often seen as markers of cultural difference.

Piol recalls that in her kora class, “Dances and songs were taught as cohesive wholes, rather than discrete parts that we would put together. When learning violin in the U.S., I first learned individual notes, scales, and how to read music, and then later learned basic and then more complex songs. When learning kora, my professor would play us a song in its entirety, and then we would go about learning it through repetition of various parts and of the whole.”

Surprises in Australia and New Zealand

Australian universities do not share the American obsession with Greek life, but there are clubs that students can join (usually with a fee attached). Apart from private universities striving to elevate themselves relative to others, Australians are far less conscious of their university’s prestige than Americans are.

Differences between Australian and American English abound, too. “It’s my shout” said at a bar means, “The next drink is on me.” If an Australian cries out, “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi Oi Oi!” it’s a cheer expressing national pride, and not an indication of a fist fight in progress.

Mollie Smith, who studies at Massey University, one of New Zealand’s largest universities, says she was surprised that professors are referred to by their first names. “Coming from the U.S.,” she says, “I was absolutely aghast at this and continued to refer to my teachers by their titles and last names until I was told otherwise. It just seemed wrong, but that’s how Kiwis work. We tend to not stand on ceremony (yes, I’m more Kiwi than American now).”

Group work is often used in the classroom, which Smith said is a reflection of the Maori way of learning. “Teachers (in any form) never stop learning from their students, and students become teachers in their own right,” Smith said. “It’s definitely shown in the primary and secondary school system here, where students are grouped together, rather than having classrooms set up in rows, as is common in the United States.”

Troy Olsen studied Landscape Architecture at Lincoln University in New Zealand, the only school in the country that offers landscape architecture. Apparently, you can fail more than one way there. “They grade failing as a D or E or F, which is funny to grade failure with so many levels.”

Surprises in Asia

In Asia, education is mapped onto career goals. “There are map points they usually look out for,” explains Tam Nguyen, an education researcher who specializes in ESL for adult learners, in explaining differences between Asian and North American attitudes about education. “So, if you get an A, you can go to Harvard and then get a high paying job,” says Nguyen. “Culturally, it’s hard for Asian parents to separate college from career readiness. Asian families trust that the teacher will manage the child’s education in place of the parents when he or she is in school. Thus, the idea of parental engagement is an interesting issue for many foreign-born parents. The idea is that when your child’s teacher wants you to be ‘more’ engaged, it equates to your child doing something bad.”

While it may illustrate your genius in a Western context, students explain that in East Asia it is not appropriate to correct a teacher in class. And be sure to wait for the instructor to dismiss you before leaving!

Ray Pun, who studied in Hangzhou, Beijing, Shanghai, Jin Hua, and Ningbo, gives this piece of universal advice: “Talk to people, just talk. You’ll probably never see them again, so why not get to know what they like or don’t like, and then understand where they are coming from — this is particularly true for me when I met many librarians and library directors across China that I will probably never meet again.”


Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (2014). International community resources. Retrieved online from Iowa State University.

Lewis, R. (2014, June 1). How different cultures understand time. Retrieved online from Business Insider.

Open Doors (2013, November 11). Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange. Retrieved online from the Institute of International Education.

Twombly, S. B., Salisbury, M. H., Tumanut, S. D., & Klute, P. (2012). Study abroad in a new global century: Renewing the promise, refining the purpose. New York: Wiley.


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