Local Knowledge: Things You can (only) Learn Abroad

When you study abroad, there’s usually a lot of emphasis on cosmopolitanism and becoming a “global citizen.” When you come home, you might hear the words “international experience” or “global skills” and people will insist that you’ve“broadened your worldview.”

But in our rush to claim these (very generic) labels, lots of students forget to pick up the most interesting and unique study abroad skill: country-specific (or local) knowledge. 

This article covers what counts as local knowledge, why it's important, and what are some things you can work on refining your knowledge of now that you're back home.

One of the least talked about study abroad skills is country/ culture specific knowledge. These are the lessons you can (pretty much) only get from living in another country.  Learn what 7 of these skills are

Why is Local (Country Specific) Knowledge so important?

Here’s the thing: Because of the internet and amazing technology, anyone can develop a “global perspective” no matter where they live. You can...

  • visit all the world's museums without ever leaving your house. 
  • enroll in courses taught by international rockstar professors from the comfort of your bedroom
  • order food and products and have them shipped to your doorstep from anywhere in the world

But there's a reason we value studying abroad. It's because we believe that there is value in (1) going to the source and experiencing things in their original, most "authentic" form and (2) the little nuances we'd never get unless we saw something first hand.

In fact, the biggest benefit of living abroad, is that you get direct access to nuanced information about a specific culture.

Study abroad is supposed to teach you global skills. But what really makes it special is the LOCAL experiences you can’t get anywhere else.

So the big question is…

How much country specific knowledge did you gain?

If you have a major (or took coursework) that hit on local and country specific themes, you probably picked up a little. And that’s awesome! But let’s see what you might want to add to you list of “Things to research after study abroad.”

1- Food and local cuisine

One of the first questions people ask you when you come back from abroad is “How did you like the food?” And that makes sense. Food is a really important part of culture. You’re also thinking about it three or more times a day. But… we often don’t go much further than having a conversation about “what” we ate.

In the US you might know the difference between Trader Joes, Whole Foods, and your local big chain store. You might be a fan of farmer’s markets. Or you might do all of your grocery shopping at 7-11 or Walmart. Or you may not grocery shop at all and just eat take out every night.

Think about the kind of information you like to know about the food you eat back home. How many of those things do you know about the food you were eating when you lived abroad?

Did you eat fresh food or was it mostly processed? How did you “shop” for food abroad in comparison to how you’d shop for it back home? What kind of ingredients were popular? How nutritious is the food? (i.e. Is it full of salt, fat, and sugar or is it vitamin rich?)

2- Medicine and health care

If you never got sick while you were abroad, you probably had no reason to visit a hospital and see how it worked or to understand how people treat illness. You probably also didn’t get a chance to understand how the health care system in the country works.

Or on the other hand, if you didn’t get a physical (medical) or a teeth cleaning (dental) or see a therapist session (mental) while you were abroad, you probably also didn’t get much insight into how people prevent illness. There’s also the various ways people prevent and treat health issues outside of the hospital.

Did you have any conversations with people about their health besides “How are you doing today?”

These questions are important if you ever want to go back and live in that country for an extended period of time. They’re also important if you want to understand deeper things about culture. Health is a corner stone.

3- Social problems and community assets

Studying abroad is a privilege that only a small percentage of college students ever get. And often, students live with host families in affluent and safe neighborhoods where you’re less likely to see poverty. But sometimes, you do go to places where you get an insight into the kinds of “social problems” the country is struggling to address.

Back home, you probably know about things like soup kitchens, domestic abuse shelters, and organizations that help alleviate homelessness. You might have even volunteered in one of these organizations.

What kind of support exists for people in your host country?

4- Indigenous stories

In the United States, you may only hear about indigenous people once or twice a year: Thanksgiving and Columbus Day. But obviously, native people had a long and rich history before they were colonized. They also continue to exist in communities and contribute cool things to our national history.

The same is certainly true for many parts of the world. So, what were you able to learn about indigenous cultures in you study abroad country? Did you ever meet anyone with indigenous heritage?

And if you went to a country with (seemingly) no indigenous people… what did you learn about the country and the various groups and populations that have lived there over time?

5- Traditional ceremonies and customs

All customs serve a purpose whether they’re logical or not. Aziz Ansari does a great stand up bit on what the customs surrounding a proposal and wedding probably sound like to the uninitiated.


But there’s a story behind every custom whether it’s leaving a plate of cookies out for Santa Claus or wearing wedding rings on the left hand. In your culture, you probably either learned these stories when you were growing up as a child. Or you just take for granted that “it’s just what you’re supposed to do.”

What were some of the ceremonies, holidays, or events you attended or participated in? Do you understand the customs? What kinds of stories did people tell you about their traditions and rituals?

6- educational system

If you studied at a local school, one thing you probably realized is that your (local) classmates studied for years before they got to college—just like you. In the U.S., you have to go through primary and secondary schools. Depending on where you live and what kind of school you went to, there are specific things you learned and specific ways your school day was structured.

During study abroad, you only get to pop in for a few weeks, a semester, or a year. So you never get to experience the lower grades in your host country. But what did you learn about education from your classmates or families? Did you ever feel like their knowledge of certain things was more sophisticated (or just different) than yours?

You might have caught a glimpse of some things if you had younger host siblings. What did you learn from them about how school works?

7- Country specific diversity

It’s really easy, in study abroad, to put yourself in a bubble and believe that the small group of people you interacted with are representative of the entire country. That’s not true. So, try to figure out how much of your experience was in a vacuum and how much of it actually captured the diversity of your country.

Think back to the type of people you interacted with. Did you meet people of different genders and sexual orientations? Did you meet people from different ethnic or racial groups? In other words, when you met people did they generally share the same traits or where they different?

Did you meet people with wildly different political beliefs? What kinds of stories and opinions did you hear in your classes?  Were you ever surprised by the perspectives? Did people openly and cordially disagree with each other?

Other things you learned

Being able to talk intelligently about culture is an important but highly undervalued skill. It’s undervalued because it’s not something you can easily and directly apply. For example, if you have language skills you can (probably) translate documents and do other things.

But, how do you apply your knowledge of another country?

It's a lot harder. But, it can definitely come in handy, no matter what you do. 

What's Next?

We've got two tools that are especially helpful for building your country specific knowledge after the fact.

If you want to continue learning more about your study abroad country, try our FREE Pinterest for Study Abroad course. It'll help you know what to look for and give you tips on how to organize all of your country-specific information.  

If you want to know more about your specific study abroad skills, grab our Skills Inventory, do the exercises, and learn how to talk about the skills that were specific to where you studied abroad.