Hoards of juniors study abroad, bring slides and stories home to Billsville

As assistant dean and coordinator of international education programs, Laura McKeon talks to a wide variety of Williams students about their educational plans. Almost without exception, she encourages each of them to study abroad. She sees the experience as a virtually requisite part of a complete education. “You need to get experience with how other people view the world,” she said.

According to McKeon, students have completely unique perspectives on the countries in which they study. At any other time, international travel would probably place them in the position of being a tourist.

Last year, Williams sent 39 percent of the junior class off campus to study. Students choose to study abroad for a plethora of reasons, not the least of which is a need just to get away.

Williamstown, though idyllic in all its isolated splendor, does, after two years, feel stifling to some students.

McKeon warns students against taking a one-sided view of study abroad. She said students are often surprised to find not only how much they leave behind, but also how much they gain by going away. She believes it’s important for students to think about both halves of the decision and to seriously consider the range of options offered by study abroad.

Even with the oft regaled advantages of study abroad, many juniors have difficulty deciding whether or not to leave campus. McKeon realizes that fear of the unknown can prevent students from going abroad or lead them to choose a semester program rather than a full year. In many ways, this fear is founded, but it only leads McKeon to strongly encourage students thinking about going abroad to consider the year-long option.

McKeon said the first part of the study abroad experience is very hard work. Everything is very different and there are a multitude of things to be figured out – making friends, going out on weekends, perfecting the language. After that, the second semester is the time to “reap the benefits of the hard work at the beginning.”

Ease of adjustment is often related to living arrangements. McKeon especially encourages students to live with host families or in dorms or apartments with native students. “The great aim at all times is to meet the students and people of the country you’re in,” she said.

Students who participated in the Williams at Oxford Program tend to be enthusiatic about their experiences, despite the fact that they live in a residential house with other Williams students.

Many recall the wonderful sense of community engendered by that arrangement. “I was with a group of people I probably would not have met otherwise, and we just gelled as a group,” Fred Licon ’99 said.

McKeon said one of the biggest choices is in the structure of the program. Mainstream university programs in Europe are structured much differently from those catering to American students. The European system of teaching is very different from teaching at Williams, according to McKeon, as it emphasizes large lectures over personal attention. She said it’s important for students to consider their reaction to this sort of environment when they are choosing a program.

Many students do thrive in programs very different from Williams. Shanna Renzi ’99 spent last fall in France and specifically chose a program where she could take business classes not offered at Williams. She enjoyed trying something so new. “Studying abroad allows you to realize that you can fend for yourself, and prepares you to face the real world after your senior year,” she said.

Karen Hu ’99 also took the opportunity to extend the scope of her education beyond her course of study at Williams. She spent last spring at the Williams-Mystic Maritime Studies Program in Mystic, Connecticut. “I knew I wanted to be an art history major and I would have the opportunity to take another year of it here,” she said. “I wanted something really different. I was caught up in the romance of going to sea.”

For some students, an intellectual change of pace takes them far from the typical jaunt to Europe. Amy Patterson ’99 remembers her arrival in Tanzania last fall as “a huge jolt” when the plane landed. She recalls being so overwhelmed by everything new and different that she truly appreciated the darkness of night and electricity rationing. “It would have been too much to also have to deal with shape and color that first night,” she said. From the moment of her arrival, Patterson was challenged to understand a whole different way of life, from lack of indoor plumbing to complications of the divisions between right and wrong, and good and bad.

She attended an American program and said the educational style emphasized experiential learning much more than Williams does. She noted the difficulty of incorporating this style into an institution like Williams. “Here there’s often the feeling that all the disciplines are separated. . .very compartmentalized,” she said. “It was really refreshing to have all those things — biology and anthropology, literature and ethics, economics and politics — pulled together. It felt right.”

After settling in to such different ways of life while abroad, many students are anxious about returning to Williams. McKeon said the most difficult part about coming back is not having people with whom to share such a prolonged, intense experience. In answer to that need, she arranges three or four log lunches throughout each semester, during which students can present slides and stories of their time away.

Despite the adjustment, “by and large people are really happy to be back,” said McKeon.

“I sometimes still feel detached from the Williams community,” said Roshan Jain ’99 who spent last year at the London School of Economics. “I’m probably not as tied to it as I was before I left, but going abroad helped me gain a new perspective on Williams, not as a world but as a place.”

McKeon requires students to submit a lengthy report to her upon their return, before they can receive credit. She said she has never heard a student say they wished they hadn’t studied abroad. Even if people find problems with their program or their location, they still recommend the study abroad experience.

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