Deans and students weigh in on study abroad: it’s worth it

By the time junior year rolls around, the option of getting off campus starts to look better and better to most Williams students. Studying abroad is a popular solution to the problem. Last year, 227 juniors – 40% of the class – went abroad, and that number is rising every year. Almost without exception, everyone who decides to go abroad claims to have had a valuable and satisfying experience.

The list of the positive aspects of studying abroad is long, but one of the most obvious benefits is having the experience of another culture. “When students think of traveling abroad, many say to themselves, ‘Well, I’ll do that later,’ but I’ve done it as a student and as a tourist and being a student is just special,” said Dean Laura McKeon, who heads the process here at Williams. According to McKeon, students inevitably form closer relationships with natives of the country and experience more complete immersion in the culture if they travel as students rather than tourists.

For Kate Geier ’00, who went on the International Training Chile Program, the formation of personal relationships was very important. “I think one of the most valuable parts of the program was living with Chilean families,” she said. In the beginning of her trip, she lived with urban Chilean families, but she also had the opportunity to live with a rural indigenous family.

“I think it is an opportunity that allows students to grow and mature,” said Heidi Montoya ’01, who is planning to go to the Hamilton Program in France for her junior year.

The first few weeks or months in a foreign country can be bewildering, and it takes a lot of personal strength not to get overwhelmed. Although many students live with host families, living abroad also takes a certain measure of independence.

Not every part of every study abroad program is perfect. McKeon has all students fill out an evaluation when they get back, and the reports are not all glowing. For example, some programs are not organized enough, and some are too structured. McKeon has noticed something interesting, though. “No matter how problematic the program was, when students get to the question ‘Was it valuable? Was it worth it?’ they inevitably give an enthusiastic ‘Yes!’ because they always learn so much,” she said.

Gillian Pesin ’00 went to Russia during the fall of this year. She was there during the height of Russia’s financial crisis. “I remember the banks would close at noon because they just ran out of money,” she said. Also, her host family didn’t always have much food. She said going on the program was definitely challenging but “totally worth it.”

Despite the values of studying abroad, some students find reasons not to go. Some students may worry that it is simply not possible to travel if they are trying to double major. McKeon agreed that it may involve more juggling, but that it is not impossible. “Certain majors pose more difficulties, particularly lab sciences like physics and chemistry,” she said. Pesin, for instance, is a double major in Russian Studies and biology. Still, she found that she could just concentrate on getting Russian credits while there and concentrate on biology when she returned.

Future-oriented students who worry that studying abroad may not add much to the resume need not fear. “Because of the way the world is today, many jobs involve a global environment, so having the experience of another culture or speaking more than one language is incredibly valuable,” said McKeon. This even includes jobs like banking or investing.

Inevitably, going abroad will cost some money. However, McKeon said that many students do not realize that their financial aid transfers to their program for the time that they are abroad. That means that paying for the plane ticket and living expenses are the only real concerns. “Students should know that studying abroad is possible for anyone who wants to,” said McKeon.

There are lots of good reasons to go abroad and few excuses not to, but McKeon emphasizes that it is important to know that studying abroad is not for everyone. Some students just have too many obligations here, like sports and clubs. Some international students may not want to adjust to a new culture all over again. Junior year is also an important time to get to know the professors in the department of your major.

The decision to go abroad is only the beginning of a long process of getting there: it officially starts in the beginning of sophomore year, when searching commences for specific foreign programs. A few students know before they get to college that they want to go abroad; most do not decide until after they enter college. One advantage of deciding early is that it makes meeting the language requirements much easier. The first step is to go to Dean McKeon’s office and pick up a copy of the Guide to Study Abroad. This little booklet outlines the process and requirements in full and gives a list of pre-accepted programs.

Next is choosing a program. “There are two major types of programs, the classroom-based types and the cultural-immersion types,” said McKeon. The classroom types are much like going to college here at Williams, just in another country. The cultural programs involve more field work and a major independent project during the last month. Students may choose a pre-approved program or find one of their own and get it approved by the school, which is a bit of a process in itself. There are currently pre-approved programs in 64 countries from Argentina to Zimbabwe. In addition, Williams offers two special exchange opportunities in Williams-Oxford and Williams-Mystic. Williams-Oxford is a year-long programs that allows students to study in England in the traditional tutorial structure of Oxford, but allows a wider range of courses than Oxford University does. Williams-Mystic focuses on marine issues for a semester, and involves sea voyages and research at the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut.

“I got a lot of my information from the study abroad fair and from the dean’s office,” said Montoya. The study abroad fair is in the fall, and many programs come to Williams to provide information to the students. Also, the Dean’s Office has a library of lists, program leaflets, applications, and feedback from students who have already been abroad. In the fall, the dean holds informational meetings, which are advertised in the DA and the Weekly Calendar.

“It is a good idea to talk to students who have already been to the country you are interested in. The Log Lunches provide a great opportunity for this,” said Dean Charles Toomajian, who is also involved with study abroad. Many students endeavor to make interesting presentations about what they did while they were abroad and how they felt about the experience.

The bottom line about studying abroad is that it is a valuable experience for most students. Still, it is important to remember that it takes advance planning. For the indecisive student, McKeon offers some advice. “Even if you think that it is just a dream and you don’t really believe that you will go, pretend you are. Go through all the preparatory motions just in case because most likely you will end up going and that way you’ll have more options.”