A group of students reentering the United States after studying abroad find that they see their country, and themselves as Americans, with new eyes.
Sponsored by the University of Washington in Seattle, in the Northwestern state of Washington, the students spent last semester studying conflict resolution issues in other countries. In the process, they say, they learned a lot about their own.
Sean Murphy, a thoughtful 20-year-old with short red hair, says that the way other people perceive Americans made him more aware of his own nationality. "Before I left the country I never thought of myself as a particularly strong American, I always see myself as 'I live in Seattle, Washington.' That's my whole cultural identity," he said. "I am much more different than the people who live in New York or Tampa or in Chicago. When I went abroad I found myself in the category of "American." Other people saw me as American, and I found it very surprising that the first thing they said was, 'Oh, you're an American'. And I say, 'Well, yeah, but I'm really from Seattle.'"
The students say they all had to make the point again and again that because of the size of the United States and the diversity of its population, it is difficult to lump all Americans into one identity or culture. In fact, 22-year-old blonde musician Erika Wulff says, one of the things that Americans do share is the freedom to express and celebrate their individuality. "I flew directly from Istanbul to New York, and I'm walking down Broadway and there's a guy dressed up as a peacock going down the street on roller-skates," she said. "And I'm like, 'God, I love this country.' And that's something I really missed, and also that is a part of my life."
The students say that they encountered perceptions of America that took them aback. Many people they met thought that all Americans were wealthy, white, and fully in harmony with all U.S. foreign policies. 21-year-old Anne Pacheco, who studied and worked with children in South Africa, says she spent a lot of time explaining that most Americans are not wealthy and must work for what they have. "There was a little boy that always talked about cars, and he always wanted to know, 'Oh, don't you have a nice big car," she said. "I could go to America and you could drive me around in your car?' And I said 'I don't have a car. I don't have enough money to buy one.' And he couldn't understand that I wouldn't have enough money to buy a car."
Ms. Pacheco, who was in South Africa with a group of students that included Chinese-Americans and Japanese-Americans, says she was surprised that people were not aware of the diversity of races and cultures in the United States. "I remember everybody who was Asian just got so much flack a lot of places we went because they could not understand that they would look Asian but be American, and that they would speak English," said Ann Pacheco. "Living in Seattle, half of the population of our school is Asian, and they're American. They were born and raised here."
Now back in Seattle from their travels and just beginning a new semester, these American students say that their view of the United States, and of themselves as Americans, has changed as a result of their time abroad. Sean Murphy says he no longer defines himself by his home town. "I find myself more as a person who lives in Seattle, but who belongs to the rest of the world," he said. "Who doesn't just have roots in Seattle, but who's all-around. At the same time I'm very happy to be back with my family, happy to see my friends, happy to see the beautiful city we live in. But it feels like I'm a stranger in my own country."
Sean Murphy is one of a group of students from the University of Washington who say they gained new insights into America and Americans by studying abroad. This feature was researched and written by intern Meredith Sumpter, herself a student of the University of Washington in Seattle. You can learn more about Ms. Sumpter on our website.