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The ornate facade of the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, as seen through an archway.

The Santiago de Compostela Cathedral in Spain. 

MarioGuti/E+/Getty Images

In a typical, pre-pandemic year, nearly 350,000 students at American universities set out on planes, trains, automobiles and the occasional ship to study abroad. And while most institutions haven’t yet returned to their 2019 enrollment levels, 83 percent expected study abroad enrollment to grow in the current academic year. It’s clear study abroad has become a major part of the college experience.

But a common challenge looms around study abroad programs: an ethical quagmire around issues of cultural immersion and cultural appropriation. I explored my own experience leading a study abroad program in my recent book, Stealing My Religion: Not Just Any Cultural Appropriation (Harvard University Press), because I think study abroad can tell us something about the ways in which higher education continues to reinforce forms of systemic injustice, despite our good intentions.

From 2014 to 2018, I led an intensive summer study abroad program in Spain. This program included walking the last 150 miles of the pilgrimage route known as the Camino de Santiago. The route ends at Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, where, tradition has it, the remains of St. James the Apostle are buried. I asked students to play at being pilgrims, promising that by doing so, they could have a particular sort of insider experience.

My Camino program always had a deep wait list and stellar evaluations. But after five consecutive years of leading the program, I became increasingly aware of ethical concerns underlying the study abroad enterprise. I wondered, could framing study abroad as a possible form of appropriation help identify ways these programs can unwittingly contribute to systemic injustice?

Cultural appropriation occurs because of context. It speaks to a dynamic in which cultural engagement occurs within existing power inequities, exacerbating those inequities and thus causing some sort of harm or exploitation despite good intentions. Thinking about how study abroad programs could entail cultural appropriation means taking seriously that these programs occur within existing power dynamics and thus also might unwittingly depend on and contribute to oppression.

One place this can be seen is in marketing materials for study abroad programs, which can overly romanticize overseas locations and the people who live there. Sometimes the culture we engage abroad is guilty of violence against marginalized communities. When we present students with an overly positive view of that culture, we contribute to systemic injustice through our erasure and neglect.

My students signed up for my Camino program with little idea that the Camino’s very existence depends on Spain’s violent religious history. The timing of the discovery of St. James’s tomb, at around 813, was during Islamic rule of the region and provided Christian authorities with a pilgrimage destination that could help bring more Christians into the region. That means from its beginning, the Camino contributed to ways in which Muslims are locally framed as foreign and dangerous, and the construction of a narrative of Spain as a Christian nation.

Learning all this may make the experience of walking the Camino less enjoyable for students because they feel implicated in this violent and racist history, but teaching this history is one way I fostered critical reflection on their experience. And yet, the fact that one of St. James’s nicknames in Spain is Matamoros—or Moor-slayer—was not highlighted in my recruitment materials.

Talya Zemach-Bersin, a lecturer in education studies at Yale University, points out that although the rhetoric of international education centers civic engagement and cross-cultural respect, the ways programs are presented to American students reinforce their sense of entitlement, consumerism and individualism. And that is an obstacle to learning. In an op-ed for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Zemach-Bersin discussed her own undergraduate experience as a student studying in India, Nepal and Tibet. Cultural immersion and global citizenship were curriculum ideals, Zemach-Bersin writes, but without any critical discussion of power dynamics—such as race, colonialism and imperialism—the author “found that I had not been prepared with the necessary tools to fully engage with, and learn from, my experiences.”

At a more general level, all study abroad programs also risk reinforcing simplistic notions about knowledge, which can contribute to epistemic injustice. For instance, when we promise our students an “authentic learning experience” in study abroad programs, we are neglecting how forms of power and oppression are what construct the perception of authenticity in the first place. The Roman Catholic church has an interest in promoting what counts as pilgrimage to Santiago, as does the Spanish state, which credentials tour guides to tell a specific version of Camino history. There is no “pure” or “direct” access to pilgrimage: the route, the rituals, the notions about the right way to be a pilgrim are all social constructions.

Authenticity can be defined in various ways, but I find that my students assume what sociologist Ning Wang calls an existentialist model, in which authenticity “denotes a special state of Being in which one is true to oneself, and acts as a counterdose to the loss of the ‘true self’ in public roles and public spheres in modern Western society.” In this model, the authenticity of an experience resides not in a community, object or place, or even the discourse about it, but in the subject’s personal engagement with the experience.

Let’s consider what this implies about knowledge and knowing. Insisting that a personal, firsthand experience is the only—or best—way to know is part of a broader colonial gesture. It implies a distrust of the native informant that, in the context of study abroad, reproduces the very structures of power hierarchies and American exceptionalism the program might set out to challenge. When study abroad programs neglect to make clear to students, in their marketing and course design, the difference between merely having a firsthand experience and engaging in the hard work of experiential learning, they are reinforcing this existentialist model of authenticity. They allow students to believe they are entitled to master and domesticate “the other,” and that this is possible just by being on location.

Put simply, when study abroad programs promise authenticity, global citizenship and cultural agility without the more uncomfortable reflection about power, we are missing an opportunity to unsettle what Anthony Ogden calls “colonial students,” who want to “build their resumes for potential career enhancement, all the while receiving full academic credit … colonial students have a sense of entitlement, as if the world is theirs for discovery, if not for the taking.”

Study abroad programs are not just about learning in a foreign country. They are part of how students discover what learning is, and why it matters. Done well, they help students challenge their assumptions about who produces knowledge, discover the role of power in the preservation and dissemination of knowledge, and consider how best to engage communities of which they are not a part. Done poorly, they reinforce existing hierarchies, romanticize others, exacerbate epistemic injustice and make students feel more secure in their assumptions about what is right and true in the world.

Course design is never neutral. That is true of study abroad as well. Our choices about study abroad—what we teach, where we teach it, what materials we use to teach—are value-laden. They are ethical choices. And despite my concerns over the ways study abroad programs can contribute to structural injustice, I still think they have tremendous potential to be ethical forms of learning, even if not in the ways our students might assume. Do these programs raise complicated issues about authenticity, knowledge creation and colonial students? Yes, but if those questions are made central to the learning, a study abroad program can be a learning opportunity more robust than mere self-actualization.

The last time I offered my Camino course was in 2018. Since it was popular and revenue generating, my university would be delighted for me to offer this program again. But looking back now, I think part of the course design undermined my intended learning objectives because it reinforced the students’ existing worldviews and presumptions that the religious practices of others were techniques to be adopted and domesticated for self-actualization. And so, I plan to redesign my Camino program in a way that puts acknowledging exploitation at the center of the experience, so that the goal becomes not consuming the culture of others, but identifying what structural injustices are hidden by the assumption that such consumption is desirable and possible in the first place. That version of my program would be clear about its social justice objectives, insist on taking diversity seriously as a source of values and be willing to make students uncomfortable. And those are much more ambitious goals than cultural competency.

Liz Bucar is a professor of religion and Dean’s Leadership Fellow at Northeastern University and author of Stealing My Religion: Not Just Any Cultural Appropriation (Harvard Press, 2022).

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