World

US students abroad emerge as unofficial ambassadors for Trump's America

bridging divides

As the world watched the US presidential election, American students studying in Europe took it upon themselves to combat stereotypes, ease fears, and provide a more nuanced understanding of Donald Trump's victory. 

American and Italian students participate in a Student Activities Council meeting at the University of Oklahoma's Rooney Family Center in Arezzo, Italy.
Photo provided by Ivey Dyson
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Upon arriving in Arezzo, Italy, Ivey Dyson found herself confronted with a seemingly-out-of-place sight: a billboard featuring then-presidential-candidate – now president-elect – Donald Trump.

The billboard was the first sign for Ms. Dyson that, even while studying abroad halfway around the world, she wouldn’t be immune to the US election frenzy, setting the tone for the months of questions, discussions, and reflection to come.

Dyson, a junior economics major at the University of Oklahoma, was one of hundreds of thousands of American college students studying outside the United States during the 2016 presidential election. While the world watched Mr. Trump rise to victory, leaving many Europeans confused and apprehensive, some American students in Europe saw a valuable opportunity to combat stereotypes, ease fears, and provide a more nuanced understanding of the election outcome to curious acquaintances. 

"Overall, I think it's our responsibility to spread positive messages, kindness, and respect everyone from the diverse cultures we encounter while abroad no matter who is president," says Claire Solomon, a junior at the University of Notre Dame studying in Dublin, Ireland. "But now that Trump is president, I think that responsibility has become so much more important." 

Since the early 20th century, American students have been considered by the federal government to be an important diplomatic tool in US foreign relations, particularly during periods of perceived anti-American sentiment, says Talya Zemach-Bersin, a postdoctoral associate at Yale University who researches international education.

"The contours change slightly in relation to whatever political moment we’re in, but the general rationale has remained the same: When American students study abroad, they help to provide a friendly face for the country, combat anti-Americanism, and ... gain the knowledge and skills that are necessary for understanding one another so as to make a peaceful world more possible," Dr. Zemach-Bersin tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. 

There is little to no evidence that students studying abroad actually have the ability to affect diplomatic relations on a macro level. Still, they may be able to influence individual perspectives through one-on-one conversations and acts of kindness. 

While engaging in political dialogue with peers and acquaintances in Ireland and across Europe, Ms. Solomon from the University of Notre Dame says she felt her primary role was to combat negative stereotypes of Americans by serving as a voice for those who didn't vote for the president-elect. 

"I think that because the main way that people over here learn about America is through the media, and the media always show the bigoted, harsh, insensitive things that Trump says, I felt like I wanted to ensure people that not all Americans think that way," she explains. "I wanted to represent America in the best way possible, and assure people that we are more than our president."

As a young Trump supporter, Jack Makin also saw an opportunity to contradict a narrative perpetuated by the media. 

While studying at Queen Mary University of London this semester, Mr. Makin, a junior at Southern Methodist University, didn't try to hide his support of the Republican presidential candidate, adorning his backpack with a red "Make America Great Again" pin – a move that was met with "mixed reviews" – and openly discussing his political views with anyone who asked.

Most conversations with Brits, he says, "revolved around my ability to support him despite his stance on social issues or foreign policy. Rarely did I get a question on economic or domestic policy, which I would always explain were the most important issues to me." He cites as an example the time a middle-aged British woman approached him at a crosswalk, having noticed the Trump button on his backpack, to ask how he could support Trump in spite of his incendiary rhetoric and proposed ban on Muslims.

Makin saw these conversations, though difficult at times, as a valuable opportunity to provide an alternative portrait of a Trump supporter in an environment where that label made him a minority. 

"I considered it my role to present a normal, level-headed American who was supporting Trump," he explains. "I liked having the opportunity to explain to people what I liked about Trump – and what I don’t – and why I would be casting my vote for him. After having the media present Trump supporters as racists, elitists, sexists, etc., I felt like I was in a position to show there was another type of person who was voting for Trump." 

Gabriel Noel, a Boston University senior studying in Paris, France, says he was, like many American college students, "upset and discouraged" upon hearing that Trump would be the next president of the United States. Nevertheless, he felt a responsibility to provide his French peers with a more nuanced understanding of the broader cultural and economic factors that led to a Trump victory. 

"It is easy for an outsider to just look at the situation and think that 'Idiocracy' is taking hold in mainstream America, while ignoring factors such as working-class white resentment, xenophobia and fears over undocumented immigrants, and economic downturn which has made many feel that the American Dream no longer exists for them as it may have for their parents and grandparents," Mr. Noel says. "By being able to speak them in person as a sort of ambassador, I can give them a more subtle, nuanced, and hopefully fuller view of what's going on in America today." 

Noel, who hails from New York City originally, acknowledges that, over the coming four years, each American student abroad will approach such conversations in a different way. But he sees that as a good thing.

"One of the most beautiful and dangerous things about our country is the dazzling array of perspectives, beliefs and opinions we each hold, each of us coming from our own environment, whether we grew up in Los Angeles, in the Pacific Northwest, in the concrete jungle of New York, in the Great Plains, etc.," he says. "Although I would guess that most Americans who study abroad lean left, it's important for Europeans to understand that Americans are not monolithic or even binary; we truly are a multiplicity, even though that's more difficult to digest." 

Some students may not engage in such conversations at all. Dyson, from the University of Oklahoma, willingly discussed American politics with acquaintances ranging from an Italian family she babysat for to a restaurant owner who jokingly told Dyson and her American friends that he'd punch them if they voted for Trump. But she doesn’t expect every student abroad during the next four years to do the same. 

She does, however, say that every student abroad has a responsibility to engage with the cultures where they live, and allow those experiences to shape their civic engagement back home. 

"I think the most important thing I can do going forward is to encourage my demographic to vote and pay attention to foreign policy issues," Dyson says. "American voters need to know just how big of a voice they really have."