Studying Abroad and the Harvard Problem

By Qichen Zhang

Along with a liberated and riotous freshman year, the abrupt wake-up call to the academic demands of college, and learning how to deal with being sexiled by a roommate, studying abroad is often considered to be a key element of the college experience. In accordance with modern western cultural values of global awareness, many college graduates who study overseas during their undergraduate years deem their time abroad as necessary to achieve a fulfilling post-secondary education.

At Harvard, however, a different culture exists. Only a small handful of students decide to leave the gated community in Cambridge each year, most preferring to spend time abroad during the summer, oftentimes not in language immersion programs. Some have been eager to point the finger at the university’s administration, citing the authoritative discouragement the student body feels. The Office of International Programs only lists five exchange programs that Harvard itself runs with partner schools, which include the Institut d’Etudes Politiques (better known as Sciences Po) in Paris and Uppsala University in Sweden. Contrarily, the university seems to push students toward Harvard Summer School programs, many of which include research-oriented weeks abroad interspersed with cultural excursions rather than language immersion courses.

Harvard’s surprisingly small number of offerings could very well stem from lack of student interest. But it’s not completely unreasonable that people would choose not to take advantage of their international opportunities given that the Faculty of Arts and Sciences departments are notoriously stingy when it comes to accepting credit from foreign universities (or any university that’s not Harvard, for that matter). Greg Gilroy, a junior economics concentrator who chose to study in Florence, Italy through a program at the University of Minnesota, did not take a single economics class during his year in Europe. “I was not able to get any of my classes approved by the economics department.” Instead, Gilroy completed courses in Italian language, culture, and European history.

Others, however, have succeeded in petitioning for concentration credit. History and Literature concentrator Odelia Younge ’11 found her department extremely open to accepting her Spanish literature, film, and history courses from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid as part of her interdisciplinary academic track. “I am getting credit toward my concentration—despite being History and Literature in the American field,” Younge noted. Hansae Catlett ‘11, a junior studying biomedical engineering, also received a credit toward his concentration with a course in engineering design at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. Catlett added that he “also got one core knocked off.”

So why do so few students study abroad? Jessica Erickson ‘10, a Psychology concentrator who spent a year at Pontificia Universidad Católica in Santiago, Chile last year, sympathized with the common sentiment that most of her peers feel when considering a year away from the university: “I think most people feel that they are going to get behind some way or miss out on something, which is too bad since that’s not the case at all.” Anna Raginskaya ‘11, a History of Art and Architecture concentrator, also noticed this widespread trend. “I think this is because spending a semester away from Harvard at an academic institution that is not very strong may indeed be perceived as a loss,” commented Raginskaya, who is currently studying art history and finance at Universita Bocconi in Milan, Italy.

But many who forgo a semester or two to escape the cruel New England winter found themselves missing what they had initially wanted to get away from. While studying abroad, many students realize the plentiful resources Harvard offers, and the constant and notoriously Harvard-style complaining that obscures the reality of the university’s generosity in terms of funding, establishment, and general conveniences. “My perspective [of Harvard] hasn’t changed much,” Catlett said. “I still view it as an amazing place of learning and opportunity. Now, I’m just taking more advantage of those opportunities.”

Undoubtedly, students who experience life at another university abroad draw their own conclusions after comparing the advantages with those of Harvard. “I took for granted the availability of textbooks, the Coop, the amazing libraries, and computer labs,” Erickson recollected about her time at Pontificia Universidad Católica. “In Chile, I would have to wait about an hour in line to photocopy all of my reading materials every week. I missed the organization and dependability that Harvard offers.”

As far as social life goes, it’s a mixed bag. Gilroy, a member of the lacrosse team, mentioned that he missed “hanging out with teammates and Final Clubs.” Catlett had a different take, however: “I didn’t miss the redundant social scene or the long nights working on problem sets or essays.”

Younge also cited the omnipresent stress of Harvard as something she was happy to remove herself from. “Studying abroad is a lot more relaxing, that’s for sure. The environment is more laid back. I do not miss the stress that sometimes goes along with being on campus and starting classes.” Kristin Ohanian ’11, who decided to go abroad in an untraditional route by applying to an external program, Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE), was quick to mention a less frenetic pace of work and life as a favorable impression of her time at the University of Amsterdam. “The libraries here closed at eight, so no Lamont all-nighters, that’s for sure!”

Perhaps the gaping hole in communication can explain why more students are not taking advantage of studying abroad. Harvard’s financial aid office offers assistance to those going abroad, sometimes more so than if they were staying on campus. According to Raginskaya’s experience with cooperating with the financial aid office,
“[they will] write you a check for any extra money you will need as dictated by your budget.” Additionally, the faculty seems to welcome the idea of pursuing academics elsewhere, allowing those who explore outside of the brick-lined confines of the Yard to come back with perhaps greater worldly wisdom. “If a student states clearly that they want to go abroad, I feel like most departments would bend over backwards to make that happen,” said Younge.

Harvard kids just have one problem to resolve. “It’s important to not fall into a trap of thinking you are the best and brightest,” said Raginskaya. “Going abroad and meeting so many new people will easily show you how many things you do not know.”

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