Self Education: Peer Pressure Abroad

By Gillian Gurish – API Florence Peer Mentor

Gillian is a senior at Converse College in South Carolina, and studied with API at Lorenzo de’Medici – the Italian International Institute in Florence, Italy during the spring 2010 term.


Remember learning about peer pressure in middle school? Sitting in health class under those obnoxious-yet-distinctive classroom lights, pretending to take notes on the “Just Say No” videotape playing on the television set from 70s. Those were the days.

But I’d be willing to bet that when you were actually put under pressure by a friend to do something you’d maybe rather not do, the cheesy after-school-special script from that movie wasn’t exactly the first thing to echo through your mind. Like many (if not most) things, peer pressure is easier discussed than dealt with. And it tends to get the best of us when we’re at our most vulnerable – outside of our comfort zone – or when we’re outnumbered. Example: it’s pretty hard for me to get that paper done when all 3 of my roommates are cracking up at something on TV and yelling at me to forget about the paper and join them. That paper seems a lot less important all of a sudden, right?

Going abroad seems to be the very definition of leaving your comfort zone. You are living in a totally new place, often an ocean away from anything and everything familiar, and you have to adjust to a foreign culture, language, and people. Oh, and you have to make new friends. It’s kind of like the first day of kindergarten – on a larger scale, perhaps, but same idea. It is an ideal position for peer pressure to cause a little trouble in your already-overwhelmed world.

Maybe you thought you’d never drink – or at least spend X amount of money on drinking, but then your roommates convince you to go out with them and it seems like a never-ending shot-a-thon, with the bar bill only getting higher. Or maybe a couple friends want to take a trip to the beach in Barcelona the day before a major paper is due. When you’re abroad, it becomes that much harder to say no – you don’t want to miss a single experience, and you want more than ever to live for the moment! But you also probably shouldn’t overdraw your bank account or fail that class that you’re getting major credit for. It’s a problem.

In my experience, the solution is in the very nature of the study abroad experience. I remember my first few weeks in Florence, thinking over and over: “I can’t miss a thing. I have to savor every single minute of this semester.” But at the same time, I was there to take classes and do some book-learnin’; it is called “study abroad,” after all. I was truly torn when my roommates went out during the week and looked at me expectantly; I’m not much of a party girl, but it seemed like an experience I should have under my belt. My intermediate Italian class, through some sick twist of fate, was at 8 in the morning three days a week – and getting home 4 hours before I had to be functional enough to comprehend and speak a different language just did not sound like a good idea. I made peace with my decision, and after going out a few times, I discovered that I’m really not much for the club scene. It’s fun every so often, but it’s exhausting. (Yes, I am aware that I am an 80 year old woman. I’ve accepted it. I’ve moved on.) it might make me weird, or a “bad” teenager, but it’s who I am – and I probably wouldn’t have figured that part of myself out without going abroad.

There has to be some profound, eloquent, slightly-cheesy proverb out there that says something about how you find yourself when you don’t know where you are. There has to be, because it’s so true – when you’re abroad, forced out of your comfort zone and that safe, secure feeling of familiarity with your surroundings – you’re forced to confront yourself, to figure out what you’re comfortable with, and what you’re not. One of my favorite parts of going abroad is how it really redefines the word ‘education;’ you learn a lot about just about everything, in and outside of class. I think it’s that self-confrontation that is key to getting the most out of your experience – and the best part is, it just happens. No assembly required.

And when it comes to facing down the pressure, I could say to just tell your friends that you’ll go out with them on Friday, or that you’re simply not comfortable spending X amount of money on drinks – but I’ll leave that to the health class video. It is supposed to be educational, after all.

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