Stumbling abroad: International education or ‘just a party?’

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Italy is the most popular study abroad location, and famous around the world for its wine. (George Walker | The Collegian)

Alcohol is a historically controversial substance in the United States.

From the Prohibition movement, passing and repealing the 18th Amendment, the pendulum of public opinion has swung back and forth dramatically over the years. The United States is one of 11 countries boasting the highest minimum drinking age in the world, since it was increased from 18 to 21 by the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984.

However, most other countries around the world have very different cultures surrounding alcohol consumption.

“There’s a very different relationship with alcohol, especially in Europe, as opposed to the United States of American,” said Andrew Smith, professor of practice in journalism and director of the Collegian Media Group. “In the United States, drinking is an end in and of itself. In Europe, in particular, drinking is an addition to something else.”

Smith began teaching an international storytelling program abroad for students three years ago. Study abroad is a passion of his, Smith said, since he lived in the United Kingdom, France and Switzerland for a total of six years.

Smith said far less “stumbling” takes place abroad than people might think, depending on where you are.

“Particularly in western continental Europe, it is very bad form to be seen inebriated,” Smith said. “Being drunk in public is considered very, very rude.”

Italy is a common study abroad destination for Kansas State students.

Benjamin Adams, junior in accounting, studied abroad in Orvieto, Italy, last summer.

Adams said his Food and Wine in Italy class was “amazing,” though he hated wine previously.

“I learned a ton there,” Adams said. “I could actually appreciate the wine. And then we did the whole thing where you smell the wine, you taste the wine, you describe it, like, ‘Oh it’s so well balanced, and I taste notes of this, and I smell notes of floral.’”

Adams said he didn’t experience too much cultural shock in terms of alcohol, but did say that could have been because he was in a small town with a population that skews older.

“In a smaller town, you know, the culture is probably a bit different, it’s not as impacted by globalization I would say,” said Joe Milostan, director of Education Abroad at K-State. “The type of city you’re in I think certainly impacts the kind of cultural experience you’re having. I don’t know if I can really speak to how that impacts drinking culture. I think the bigger thing impacting drinking culture would be access to other young people or other students.”

Bailey Martin, senior in electrical engineering, spent five months last year studying in the Czech Republic, where she said casual drinking was much more common.

“It just wasn’t as big of a deal,” Martin said. “There wasn’t like people who went crazy drinking quite as much, because drinking was more normal. You didn’t accidentally drink too much as often. The Czech Republic especially is probably one of the heaviest drinking countries, but not in a bad way. They do a more casual drink-one-beer-a-day kind of thing.”

Martin isn’t far from the mark either. Data from World Bank found the Czech Republic has one of the highest volumes of alcohol consumption per person each year, whereas Italy falls below the United States by this measure.

Though the legal drinking age in the Czech Republic is technically 18, regulations are not strictly enforced, Martin said.

“They don’t check, you could probably look like you’re 14,” Martin said. “They would only check in a grocery store, but not in a bar.”

Martin turned 21 before she studied abroad in Europe.

“I think it made it different for me when I went over there,” she said. “It wasn’t as much of a shock to see drinking everywhere because I had already been able to go to Aggieville.”

Milostan said besides pre-departure orientation, students receive special orientation upon arriving at the country that addresses its local cultural norms and laws.

As the director of Education Abroad, Milostan said he sometimes gets feedback criticizing study abroad as “just a party.”

“That happens here, you know,” Milostan said. “I would be surprised if alcohol usage really was that different.”

Smith said though he has experienced a few times where students got more “raucous” than is culturally acceptable, he has never had to deal with a serious incident involving alcohol. Many students tend to be intimidated in an unfamiliar country, making them cautious about risky drinking, he said.

“Generally students are fairly respectful, because pre-departure, we try to really emphasize their role representing the university, and they take that seriously,” Smith said.

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My name is Rebecca Vrbas. I’m the assistant culture editor at the Collegian and a junior in journalism and mass communications. My hobbies include obsessing over an ever-expanding pool of musicals and cats (not the musical). I love writing because of the infinite intricacy of language, as well as its power to cultivate a sense of community through sharing experiences.