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The Importance of Sustainability in Study Abroad

by Alina Zárate
Student traveling in lush green environment | The Importance of Sustainability in Study Abroad

In 2018, I had the unique opportunity to study abroad as part of a gap year in Granada, Spain. Prior to studying abroad, I had no idea where I wanted to go to school or what I wanted to major in once I started college. But, while abroad, I got to visit new places and experience life in a different culture which helped me discover my passion for environmental science. Being abroad helped me realize how interconnected the world is, not only socially, but environmentally and allowed me to gain a new perspective of what society is and how it can change. As a result, I have decided to write a blog post on the environment and how it relates to our unique experiences abroad.  

As I am sure you are well aware, one of the most serious issues facing the world today is the threat of global warming and climate change. But these issues often get lost in the abstract or seem so insurmountable that we feel overwhelmed and helpless. The reality, however, is that while this is a very pressing issue, there are a lot of things that we can do now that can have a significant positive impact.

Therefore, I thought that it would be a good idea to break down this problem into more manageable pieces and relate it specifically to study abroad and what we can do as study abroad students to make a difference. 

What is the Problem? 

To start, there are a lot of basic questions that should probably be answered with regards to the environmental crisis facing our planet. First, what is the difference between global warming and climate change? Global warming is the long-term heating of Earth’s climate system due to human activities, primarily fossil fuel burning (this means the gas in your cars, the coal power plants used to produce electricity, and the fuel used to power most industrial processes) which increases the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere which, in turn, trap more heat. Climate change, on the other hand, is the long-term change in average weather patterns and you have likely experienced this in one way or another whether it has been through west coast droughts and fires, east coast flooding, Midwest polar vortexes, or the prolonged hurricane season in the southeast. 

Second, what causes it? Every action that we take throughout the day plays a role in climate change and global warming whether it has a positive or negative effect. For example, driving a car, using electronic devices, and buying products such as clothes and food can have a negative impact on the environment because they use fossil fuels. However, other actions such as riding a bike, reducing electricity usage, and planting trees all have a positive effect on the environment because they reduce fossil fuel emissions. 

What are the consequences of global warming and climate change? The climate plays a role in every aspect of our lives and, as a result, impacts everyone around the world in different ways. The short-term effects of climate change that we are already experiencing involve an increased frequency of extreme weather events, loss of glacial and polar ice, and an increase in extinction and endangered species. Future consequences include ocean acidification, sea-level rise, vegetation cover changes, and more extreme weather events. 

The Impact of Study Abroad 

As study abroad students, our time abroad is jam-packed with new places, new friends, and new experiences. As a result, we rarely stop to think about the impact that we are having on our host communities. Study abroad, and tourism in general, can have significant negative impacts on the environment if we do not take active steps to combat them. International transcontinental flights produce massive amounts of carbon emissions that contribute to global warming, not to mention the short in-country flights that we often take for weekend trips during our study abroad experience.

Additionally, study abroad students and tourists produce a lot of waste in their host communities and host cities use a lot of resources to cater to the needs and wants of short-term visitors. Therefore, it is important that we, as study abroad students, look around at our host cities and acknowledge the impact that we have on them from the polluted rivers that run through them to the overflowing trash cans to the never-ending repairs and restorations being done on historic buildings. The host cities that we grow to love during our study abroad experiences do not exist in a vacuum and everyone needs to make an effort to help preserve them. 

So, What Can We Do? 

Studying abroad gives us the unique opportunity to experience life in a different part of the world and in a different culture. Therefore, it is really important that we are aware of the environmental issues that our host country is facing. If we gain a better understanding of this, we will be more aware of our own impacts and be more motivated to reduce them. All study abroad students can make the effort to take sustainable action while abroad. This can include small actions, like using a reusable water bottle or taking shorter showers or larger actions like using more sustainable means of transportation. Engaging more deeply with our host cultures is another way to reduce our environmental impact on our host communities as sustainable values and practices are often incorporated into traditional cultural practices.  

In all, there are many opportunities for us to have a positive impact on the environment while abroad and doing so not only enables us to contribute positively to sustainability efforts in our host cities but also interact with our host communities in different and meaningful ways. 

We hope you will join AIFS in this journey, track our progress on our Green Initiative page and consider changes you can make in your personal and professional lives ahead to positively impact our planet.

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