Election '08: The world weighs in

American students abroad are expected to be au courant with the campaign

By Jennifer Ehrlich
Globe Staff / October 26, 2008
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When Cassie Leventhal walked out of Charles de Gaulle Airport to start her year in Paris, the cab driver first asked her where she was going and then, "Obama où McCain?"

"Once they know you are American, the only issue of concern becomes the election and the reasoning behind your choice," said Leventhal, a Northeastern University junior.

On the other side of the globe in Australia, Aviva Gat, a Boston University junior, was similarly quizzed.

"Every time someone heard my accent they immediately asked me what I thought about Obama, everyone from shop owners to waiters to taxi drivers," said Gat.

In the run-up to the presidential election, American college students living everywhere from Greece and Belgium to Thailand and Japan are finding they are never far away from US politics.

The Globe asked the several hundred New England college students who have shared their experiences living abroad for our World Class series to tell us what it's been like studying outside the United States with so much global attention focused on our presidential race between John McCain and Barack Obama.

Their responses from all over the world suggest it is an exciting but politically charged time to be an American student abroad. Many said they now better understand the global impact of US power and embraced their role as informal ambassadors.

It's clear that no college students should head overseas these days without an eighth-grade US civics textbook in their backpack. The world is fervently following the US election process, and foreigners expect US students to understand and explain it.

Ashley Saliba, a University of New Hampshire junior in India, said she never expected to be reading about debates and the election every day in the newspaper in Hyderabad.

"I would advise other students not to talk about politics if they don't know a lot about it," said Saliba. "If you don't know what you are talking about, they definitely do."

In Vancouver, Jeanine Navarrete, a Wellesley College junior, said she has been continually grilled by Canadians about the intricacies of the election and her political leaning.

"I've never considered myself a politics junkie, but I've had to do some reading up just to keep up," said Navarrete.

The experience of studying abroad has always been as much an education about how the United States is viewed by others as it is learning about the new place. But there probably are few elected US officials who have been thrust into debate over the country's foreign policy by people on the street the world over as frequently as students living abroad now.

Students report that cafes, bus stops, weddings, mountain treks, dinner parties, and nightclubs have become forums for discussion about Iraq, the economic crisis, and their upcoming vote. The people they meet have strong opinions of whom they would vote for and are not afraid to share them.

"I've lost count of how many conversations revolved around why I should vote for Obama or how Sarah Palin is the most bizarre VP choice," said Danielle Ryan, a BU junior studying in London.

In Thailand, Caitlyn Keckeissen, a senior at Northeastern, said the high school students she taught in Mae Khajan followed the election closely and personally.

"They told us in a very forward way that they believe they should have a vote in our election, since the US presidency makes such a huge impact on their country and the entire world," Keckeissen said.

It's been a rough time for those who went abroad seeking total immersion in another culture.

"While I was trying to learn more about Ecuador and its government [it's harder than it sounds - they had 10 presidents in the past 10 years], people kept talking to me about the Bush administration and who was winning what states in the primaries," said Kristen Kelly, a Boston College senior just back from Quito.

"I have to admit I thought living in Athens would give me some escape from the constant campaigning, political slander, and heated debates in the United States, but I could not have been more wrong," said Caitlin Meeker, a Wellesley junior. "The Hard Rock Cafe in Athens featured both the vice presidential and presidential [prerecorded] debates, which drew such a large crowd that you had to reserve your table days in advance."

Responding to anti-Americanism was a big part of life for many students, particularly those in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.

"I regret to state the obvious that much of the world does not even take America or our people seriously right now, and it is disgraceful to see how far the opinions of us have slipped in recent years," said Adam Jackowitz, a Northeastern junior just back from Auckland, New Zealand.

"Oftentimes I told cab drivers or random people that I was Canadian or British so I wouldn't be discriminated against," said Meredith Caplan, a Lehigh University senior who studied in Paris.

But most students said that they felt welcomed after they indicated they were willing to be open-minded about politics.

"I never felt that I was looked down upon for being an American during my stay in Europe, but looking back I wonder if that was because I was willing and able to discuss politics with them," said McKenna Lowry, a Northeastern senior who studied in Brussels.

In Buenos Aires, Christopher Pastorino, a BU senior, said he received a positive reception from Argentines who appreciated that he speaks Spanish.

"At the time I was in Argentina, there was a strike between the farms and the government and so my host family educated me about the situation, and at the same time they always brought up how anxious they were about the American election and how it could affect them," said Pastorino.

In Seoul, Wellesley junior Laura Corser said the main interest in the election revolves around how it will affect the economy. But always there is foreign policy.

"Most Koreans I spoke with strongly preferred Hillary's foreign policy. Now they have thrown their support behind McCain, who supports favorable Korea-US trade and a persuasive rather than forceful stance towards North Korea," Corser said.

Priyanka Boghani, 24, a BU graduate student in London, said she was asked by a stranger to define the term "redneck" as it pertained to Palin. "He said she seemed energetic and fresh. He also said the Republicans have better ideas about how to run the country," said Boghani.

It was much more common, however, for students to encounter vocal support for Barack Obama.

"Every single person that talked to me about politics in Rome, Naples, the Andes Mountains, Buenos Aires . . . was for Obama," said Michelle Catagnus, a Northeastern sophomore who spent the summer in Italy and Argentina.

Christina Giordano, a Harvard University junior in Cuba, said there's a lot of excitement about the US elections in Havana. "People are very much for Obama down here, because he has expressed interest in being slightly more liberal in Cuban policy than McCain," she said.

In Nanjing, China, Tracy Alexander, a Northeastern senior, found people only cautiously broached political topics.

"When I asked who they would prefer as the next American president, they said that they would prefer Obama," said Alexander, "but joked they would miss seeing President Bush's name in the papers."

Faced with the passionate and disparate views, some students took a cautious approach to discussing politics, keenly aware they were seen as representative of US citizenry.

"I tried to be well informed about the issues, but responded neutrally to most questions I was asked," said Elizabeth Dahlborg, a BU senior who studied in New Zealand.

In Osaka, Japan, Aurora Tsai, a BU junior, said she did not feel put on the spot. "I did not have a strong opinion about either candidate at the time, so conversations about the elections never lasted too long," said Tsai.

Many students said that since traveling abroad they have gained an appreciation of the global reach of US leadership and now feel a sense of responsibility about their vote.

"I feel like so much is riding on this election and so many of my British friends are counting on us to make this decision," said Ryan in London. "I never realized how much this vote would affect the outside world, but it does immensely."

Jennifer Ehrlich can be reached at

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