A friend is someone who will be by your side no matter what; who will stick by you and share pivotal moments of your life with you. A critical friend, however, is one who will offer you their honest opinion and critique, with the goal of helping you grow as an individual. Our professors introduced this term to us during orientation, and encouraged us to remain critical friends to one another throughout this experience. This served as a running theme throughout the program. We were in tight quarters, in an unfamiliar country with a culture we weren’t used to. We’d make mistakes – we just had to trust someone would be there to challenge us to do better. To be better.
During our class, for example, we had to be critical friends. We were there to help each other grow, not to bring each other down. Sometimes people made problematic comments or said things that conflicted with the majority opinion. These unpopular opinions were definitely addressed during class, and conversations often became tense. Having these kinds of conversations about social issues and opposing ideologies can be tough, as there may not actually be a “right answer.” However, what I appreciated most about this program was that it forced us to talk about and think through our differences in ways some people may have otherwise never had the opportunity to.
I was often challenged to be a critical friend, myself. This summer was characterized by evolving dynamics, underlying themes, and layered issues. I found myself being a critical friend to my classmates who made decisions that totally disregarded the people of color in the group; my Jamaican comrades whose ideologies were rooted in gender and racial biases; and even my professors, who allowed their assumptions to dictate how they handled situations.
Sometimes being a critical friend came in group settings, but you’d be surprised how many people actually seek it. Watching some of my classmates truly humble themselves enough to admit they were wrong and seek guidance on how to move forward was one of my biggest takeaways from studying abroad. You see, in class, we talked about the “bystander effect” and how not acting in a situation can be just as bad as being the oppressor. And as difficult as it is to be strong, your actions, or lack thereof, could determine the course of a situation. I began to reflect on my own ability to admit when I was wrong, and realized that in order to be an effective critical friend to others, I had to be critical of myself.