Bree’s Four Universal Lessons and Virtues


The following is an excerpt from Bree Baccaglini 15.5’s keynote speech during International Education Day 2014, when 120 Mt. Abe Global Studies students came to Middlebury to attend workshops focusing on global citizenship. Baccaglini was a part of Language in Motion’s inaugural cohort of presenters last fall.

I’m a senior here at Middlebury College, and I study Political Science and Arabic. I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to speak with all of you on the topic at hand, as I believe deeply that international education can both shape your lives and impact our world. What I want to do today is to give you a snapshot of my most important international learning experience, and then to share with you what that experience has taught me about the virtues of study and growth abroad.

My own story. Inspired by curiosity, I began studying Arabic my sophomore year, and found myself falling rapidly down the glorious rabbit hole of foreign language study. Perhaps you’re familiar. My study took me to Mills College in California for a Middlebury summer immersion course, and then to Amman, Jordan (a country in the Middle East), where I spent last fall living with a host family and studying with my peers at the local university. Though there were sad days and mad days and frustrated days, I grew to love Jordan, I grew to love Jordanians, and I grew to love Arabic – obsessively, even. This love led me to withdraw from Middlebury in the Spring, and stay in Amman – I didn’t feel that my abroad experience was yet complete. So, I moved into an apartment, and began volunteering with an international non governmental organization called Save the Children at a school in mkaym alza3tari – a refugee camp for Syrians in northern Jordan. Here, I met girls and boys who witnessed the painful and violent unraveling of their country, Syria, but who still showed up to school smiling and hugging their friends close. I learned a lot everywhere I went in Jordan, but perhaps nowhere more than here.

[…] Though, as I’ve suggested, international experience can take an infinity of forms, I believe there are a few universal lessons and virtues. In fact, I’ve identified four of them, and would like to share them with you.

1. When living and learning internationally, you realize there is more than one way to live. Growing up in the United States, it’s easy for us to think that people everywhere have the same priorities, values, and perspectives as us. We become so comfortable in our world view. A routine, however, cannot be mistaken for a singular truth. […] Our impulse, faced with differences […] is to judge – is to decide which is “better.” This is folly. So long as these differences do not undermine human rights and liberties, there is no hierarchy. Life is diverse in its forms – appreciate it.

2. Studying and living abroad affords you the ability to reject stereotypes and recognize the humanity of others – particularly if you are living among misrepresented or marginalized people. It also gives others the opportunity to reevaluate their assumptions about you as an American by appointing you as an informal cultural ambassador – believe me, this happens – so use your power well. […] Once we replace inaccurate and injurious assumptions with observations from lived experience, we permit a human depth to form that enriches our understanding of the host culture. In these moments, meaningful intercultural linkages are made because shared humanity is acknowledged.

3. International study, in my opinion, should encourage humility and gratitude. When we go abroad, we cannot make our journey about ourselves. We must make our journey about understanding our small, modest place in the world. Abroad, in a foreign language, we are always learning, and learning is perhaps one of the most humbling human processes in which we have the privilege to participate. Furthermore, while abroad, we should begin understanding how we can better serve this world – in the face of civil wars, famines, violent government crackdowns, terrorism – there is no shortage of tasks. In fact, there is no rest for the weary.

4. International study, as much as it is an academic experience, should begin to inspire action towards improving our world. It is not just about identifying the words ills, it is about getting your hands dirty tackling them.

[…] That said, my opinions on international education by no means represent the gold standard. The list I shared with you is not comprehensive – it is cursory. Ask your friends, teachers, and role models what they have to say. Better yet, get out there and find your own answers.

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