Don’t just do something, stand there

by  Sophie Johnson

“I’m just here to drink. And I guess to meet new people.”

This girl had the blondest hair you’ve ever seen, bright blue eyes, and a purse that must have cost more than my entire wardrobe. I just sighed and shook my head: it was depressing how comfortably this girl slid into her stereotype.

Honestly, this was not the type of person I expected to meet during my semester in Chicago. The Urban Studies program I applied to is “all about” teaching me how the city works from a social justice perspective, according to their Web site. It is “all about” learning the reality of urban life, questioning perspectives, and understanding what is necessary for the instigation of active change. Nowhere in the program description did I read that it was about drinking.

But here I was in a meet-and-greet circle (yes, like the ones we did circa first grade), and this blonde girl from Valparaiso University outwardly stated that she is just there to party.

She wasn’t the only one, either. Going around the circle, I learned that at least half of the 46 people involved in the Chicago Urban Studies program this semester were really only there to have a good time. They could care less about political machines, racial inequalities, gentrification, moral dilemmas and peace of mind. They just wanted to get shit-faced.

This has been the general trend of e-mails I’ve received and other reports from my friends abroad: “Man, this country is great. Lots of cool people and stuff. And the drinking age is seventeen!” Apparently, the reason to take a semester abroad is to go out to bars every night, drink foreign liquor and dance in places where you don’t speak the language.

Okay, okay. Yes, we’re young, we’re (for the most part) good-looking, all our parts still bend and an opportunity to get out into the world and take advantage of it is put in front of us when we apply to abroad programs. Can we really be blamed if we down a few shots four nights a week?

And furthermore, it can’t be all fun and games. Obviously, there are program requirements to meet, classes to take and landmarks to see. After all that work, it’s perfectly reasonable to have a couple of drinks, right?

Well, I don’t know. On a Friday night, sure. During Oktoberfest, I would expect nothing less. But every night of the week? To me, it sounds like a huge waste to be in an incredible new place if you’re too drunk to realize where you are.

Chicago is quite possibly the most interesting city I have ever been to. It is backed by a rich and scandalous history of simultaneously progressive and regressive political movements and racial struggles that tirelessly persist. This is the place where jazz was born; where some of the biggest architectural achievements in the history of time still stand; where deep dish pizza burst onto the scene. Last Friday night, I could have gone to a party in one of those blonde girls’ apartments. I could have tried to take the train back to my apartment while tripping over my feet. Maybe that would have been fun.

But instead, I went to Wrigley Field. I went to a concert at the Metro and met interesting people from around the area. I danced to M. Ward while people with Midwestern accents cheered all around me. I ate at an authentic African restaurant. And while I was walking back toward the train, I noticed that the moon was fuller and more orange than I had ever seen it before, and it seemed unreal. All of this made me happy just to be alive.

That’s the best reason to go abroad: to see the world in ways you’ve never seen it before; to find yourself shocked by cultural anomalies; to ultimately examine yourself under a totally new lens and maybe see something that you’ve never seen before. Don’t go to party in a new place. Instead, go to live your life in a new way. Come back changed, and not because you got into a drunk driving accident.

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