In my year in the Williamstown community, I’ve heard a lot of discussion about studying abroad, in part because I know mostly sophomores here. I myself am personally getting ready to pack up and move to France next year with my wife, a sophomore. One of the things that has surprised me about the College is how few students are willing to take the amazing opportunity of a full year abroad and instead settle for a short four-month stopover.
From what I understand about the liberal arts (granted, I’m an engineer by training), it is a field that is supposed to be about exploring and broadening your horizons. A liberal arts education helps students develop, not only into future members of the workforce, but also into individuals and members of society. I know that students here have a lot of great academic opportunities, but spending all of these defining years directly after high school in one place is an alien idea to me.
Personally, I spent those years in many different places around the world, doing many different things, often working or traveling (or both). As a result, I waited before going to college. Where I come from, in fact, that’s the social norm. Instead of leaping from one degree to the next, it’s expected that you should really figure out who you are and what you want to do before starting college.
Looking back on those years, I have come to realize that they were some of the defining moments of my life. I was really growing and learning the most, even when I was far away from a classroom. I’m not just talking about visiting places – most of us travel occasionally and end up in interesting situations with interesting people. But in order to really get to know a place, to fully submerge yourself in a foreign culture, you need to live there for an extended period of time.
During summers spent working at a camp near Seattle, Wa., I realized how important family and children are for me. During the course of the six months I worked as a hotel waiter in the south of England with a dozen other 20-somethings, I came face-to-face with globalization. Throughout this time, I found friends all across the world whom I’m still close with years later. I hiked whenever and wherever I could, exploring my surroundings, and I’ve carried that attitude of exploration forward.
Those are just some of the moments that stood out to me – my friends from Sweden, who have all gone on similar expeditions, have their own. And I imagine that the students here at the College will look back on this time as a similarly defining period.
There are pluses and minuses to both the European and the American approach. European universities – once you get there – are more career-oriented and focused, so they do necessitate deeper reflection ahead of time. In comparison, there is more room for exploration while at school in the U.S. But I do think that spending all of these formative years in one place, in one kind of academic environment, can be limiting. I know that academics at Williams are great; I’ve had the chance to audit classes here myself, and I know that a lot of people limit themselves to a semester abroad because they don’t want to miss out on all the amazing opportunities. Still, I think students shouldn’t underestimate what they’re missing out on by hanging on too tightly to one place. Williams provides incredible opportunities to go out and explore the world beyond the College itself – so take them.
Einar Emilsson is a Williamstown resident from Lidköping, Sweden. He lives on Water Street.