One day in Brussels this summer my wonderfully British supervisor, after asking whether anyone wanted tea, paused, and turned to me and my fellow intern.
“Oh, of course. Happy Fourth of July to all you Americans!” she said.
I received similar congratulations from many people in the capital of Europe that day. Americans were treated with sensitivity and curiosity, as though we might spontaneously fall to the floor in the middle of the workday to pay homage to our pantheon of Declaration signers.
Spending the Fourth of July abroad made me more away of the similarities and differences between July 4 and other countries’ birthdays, the juxtaposition of picnics that celebrate independence and military parades that remind us how American soldiers are still fighting and dying for our nation.
In fact, I gave the day much more consideration than if I’d actually spent it in the United States itself.
A common theme in many Yalies’ international travels seems to be that widening of perspective, both on America and on the rest of the world. We can learn a lot by spending our summers in our hometowns or exploring the vast number of fascinating regional differences within the U.S. But there is something about getting one’s passport stamped that spurs us to more critically take stock of who we are. In response to differences in language, politics, and cultural assumptions, we must confront our own values critically — whether to change them or to reaffirm them.
One particularly interesting change in cultural perspective for me, for instance, was the view of a world from countries that know they aren’t big shots. On Belgium’s national holiday in July, the leading candidate for prime minister was asked to sing the Belgian anthem. He broke out into La Marseillaise, the French anthem. “What a Belgian story!” the pundits said; not “How unpatriotic!”
The episode reminded me of a contest once run by a newspaper in Canada, where I grew up. Readers were asked to come up with a Canadian counterpart to the American saying “as American as apple pie.” The winning entry was “as Canadian as possible under the circumstances.”
There’s a certain self-deprecation that comes with being a not-tremendously-important country struggling with its national identity. Living abroad can introduce American students to the dilemmas of societies that don’t argue about exporting their values because they are too busy finding ways to react to the new imports.
These, of course, are only my own experiences. New insights are magnified when Yale students return, as stories about visiting hospitals in India or studying architecture in Egypt or working for a British bank can tremendously enrich seminar discussions and dining hall conversations. Recognizing the value of trips around the world, the University has embarked on a serious push to internationalize. But as the process moves forward, it must be carried out evenly and smoothly, to ensure access for a broad spectrum of Yalies and to bring students to many different regions.
A number of changes could be made. The fellowships offered to Yalies, together with the International Summer Award and other sources of funding, are extremely generous. But the timing often makes it difficult for students to budget accurately, and the uncertainty hurts students who could not afford to travel abroad otherwise. Allowing fellowship requests to come in on a rolling basis could make international travel more feasible for these students. It would ease the pressure to apply for a fellowship before being accepted at the organization abroad — or, from the opposite perspective, to make a decision about summer plans before knowing there will be enough money to fund them.
In addition, while East Asia is an increasingly important area of the world to understand, it is not the only one that needs a tremendous infusion of Yale resources. The lack of any organized summer program in the Middle East, for instance, sends a discouraging message about the university’s commitment to support students who wish to see the Middle East from within. It’s all very well for Yale to build research ties in the Middle East, but why not take the more direct step of starting an International Bulldogs Program in Jerusalem or Cairo?
I look forward to hearing my classmates talk about their journeys to the ends of the earth in the coming days and weeks — and next year, I look forward to hearing even more.
Rachel Bayefsky is a junior in Morse College.