I Studied in a Country With a Terrible Human Rights Record, and Here's Why That's Okay

Studying abroad is quickly becoming a quintessential college experience. In the academic year of 2010-2011, more than a quarter of a million U.S. students pursued credit-bearing academic courses in countries outside of the United States. About 23% of the class of 2011 reported studying abroad at one point in their college career. Schools are quick, and proud, to tout their study-abroad percentages – Goucher College in Maryland and Soka University of America in California require all of their students to spend time abroad before they graduate. At Georgetown University, my alma mater, 57% of students study abroad for at least one semester.

But as the number of American students in "traditional" study-abroad destinations such as Italy, France, and the United Kingdom is on the rise, so too is the number of students flocking to less conventional locales. I write this article from a café in Saint Petersburg, Russia, where I am studying abroad for the fall semester. My roommates are in Pune, India and Gabarone, Botswana for the same purpose. It seems like the more obscure and the more different from the U.S. a place is, the more popular it's becoming with the college crowd. A particular incident springs to mind when, as a college freshman, I heard about a student at my school who had been arrested at the Egyptian riots, and force-fed gasoline and beaten. It got me thinking: Are we as a school losing credibility for partnering with colleges and universities in countries with less-than-stellar track records for human rights and democracy? How is it that so many large U.S. universities have partnerships with universities in countries that the U.S. government has denounced for human-rights violations?

Examples come from all over the U.S., and all over the world. Brown University sends students to Cuba, both to the University of Havana and the Casa de las Americas. Georgetown, USC, Tufts, Claremont McKenna, and a plethora of other colleges in the U.S. have programs in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, Russia. The University of Pennsylvania, Duke, and Georgetown have programs in India. Seattle Pacific University has one in Palestine. The Boren Award for International study will fund students up to $20,000 for a year’s worth of academic study in countries including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Yemen, Pakistan, and Mali (for a full list of “preferred countries”, click here). And finally, Lafayette College has a program in — I kid you not — Pyongyang, North Korea.

Is sending our students to universities in countries with poor human rights a sign of encouraging the country's political and social regime? Perhaps it is, especially if the host university is a public, state-run facility, in which the government may still censor and sponsor certain elements of their courses. An argument can be made that by sending American students to these countries, the government is legitimizing countries and governments with human-rights abuses on the world stage. In addition, if U.S. policy is in conflict with that nation, engaging in inter-student exchange will undoubtedly strengthen the host nation (if you believe that trade strengthens nations and that student exchange is a form of trade) and hurt the the United States' position within the conflict. 

On the other hand, educational exchange is one of the best ways to thaw relationships between peoples. It allows us to see past our divergent histories, cultures, and histories to understand the humanity that is common in all of us. Closing off opportunities for educational dialogue and exchange to countries with differing social agendas and priorities from our own restricts academic freedom as well as cuts off the means to achieve common understanding before it even begins. Furthermore, many college students in other countries have simply not been exposed to proponents of an opposing set of ideals. Many of my American classmates have befriended and come out to Russian friends and conversation partners, to shocked and amazed responses because they simply had not met a gay person and therefore could not fathom that they could be so…normal. This is the dialogue we must strive to have, not to ignore. It matters little if you are a Republican from Texas or a Muslim from the West Bank or even a communist Youth League member from Saint Petersburg — when people are introduced as classmates, and given four months and some less-than-ideal cafeteria food to complain about, they emerge with a newfound understanding of each other.

I am not trying to downplay the importance of ensuring equal human rights for all, but perhaps this can be a much-needed reminder that we still have much to learn about the world and about each other. The political and social agenda of a few of the countries' elites does not encompass even a smidgen of the wide variety of opinions of their citizens. I am in college. Let me indulge in the intellectual curiosity and idealism of a twenty-something that allows me to befriend this awesome Palestinian/Cuban/Russian and fall in love with this beautiful city, before society dictates that I cannot.