2016.02.05 A Lethal Cocktail of Expectations

Did you ever study abroad, move out, or dream of living in another country?

Most people don't. They know that the option exists and that it is attractive to some people, but most people live out their lives in their countries of birth - even if they may happily travel abroad on vacation.

But expectations are changing, and some times the ambitions of institutes of higher learning contribute to this change.

A generation or two ago, if people went to the university, the expectation was that they would go to somewhere close to home. That is where they applied and usually got in. Yes, there were the ambitious "weirdos" who applied for the Ivy Leagues, MIT, Oxbridge, and the international business schools. And yes, in some countries where only few options for studying close to home existed, more students had to go abroad.

But now, it seems as if every university with any self-respect must have an international program. And to fill these programs they have to increase the expectations that students take some semesters abroad. One can't talk about how beneficial it will be for out-of-country students to come here (wherever here is) without signalling to one's own students that studying abroad will be good for their careers as well.

I am not saying that students will not benefit from becoming more international or that our companies don't need more "employees with cultural dexterity". On the contrary; more than ever we all need to understand that "others" are real people with dreams and hopes who laugh and cry and study just like we do. There is no better way to learn that than to build a diverse network of friends - because friends are never "other".

But many students would not have considered studying abroad had it not been for the ever increasing expectations of what it takes to be "successful".

The "weirdos" of the past probably went against the expectations in other areas as well and were used to traversing obstacles. Do young people trying to live up to expectations have the same grit?

Is living abroad even the same experience for the person who has long dreamed of going out for at least a while as it is for people who believe that they "need this experience for their LinkedIN profile"?

Are the schools who help propel this level of expectations prepared for the fall out if they recruit a new type of student who is studying abroad to fulfill expectations, not from a burning desire to experience the world? Do they hire counselors with cultural dexterity? Do they hire counselors at all?

Do schools fully understand that they send out students who want to earn the brownie points but may not be suited for the challenge? Should they require a semester of cultural awareness to prepare the students? They have requirements for so many less risky endeavors. Even if students took the class and decided not to travel, they would have learned something very useful.

Adapting to a life abroad is tough. Many, many grown people give up on their international assignment because it was more than they bargained for. And this is in spite of that many of them come with cultural counseling sessions, a nice home paid for, and extra compensation for the inconvenience.

Fortunately, young people are more malleable and more open to building new social networks than older people. Unfortunately, they are also immature and have a less solid idea of who they are and of what they are - or are not - capable of.

It used to be "What happens in Rome, stays in Rome." That was an important part of the idea of going abroad that mistakes and "loss of face" could happen where the only people watching where not those we should relate to for the rest of our lives.

Today, we know that loss of respect from peers lights up the same brain centers of a developing person as abandonment does in a two year old: mortal terror. With Facebook, students can be sure that any failure will be known across continents. There has never been less room for mistakes.

I lost an aspiring colleague this week. And it breaks my heart that we - the systems at both schools; his friends; I, a random acquaintance - didn't catch in time how studying abroad is not for everyone; was not for him. The stakes can get too high. We can and must do better.

Rest in peace, child. I am so deeply sorry for what you have gone through...