So, you’ve filled out all the paperwork to get Harvard credit from courses abroad and applied specifically to some programs you’re interested in. As you wait to hear back from those programs in the next few weeks, you can’t help but feel a little uncertain about whether leaving Harvard for a whole semester is something you really want to do, after all. Sound familiar?
As a foreign language major, I had expected to spend a semester abroad during my college years -- after all, what better way to fully immerse yourself in another language and culture? But despite what I am certain would be great benefits for my studies and personal growth, I have chosen only to pursue summer and January term abroad options, rather than taking a semester away from campus. It is a complicated decision for students here, and one that many feel isn’t completely their own. The choice to study abroad should be a very personal, independent one, but it seems that Harvard students often feel compelled to take into account the effects their time away will have on their friends, blockmates, work, and campus organizations.
With so many opportunities available at any given time, is it any wonder that students are worried about what they will miss during a semester? The realization that it’s physically impossible to take advantage of all the opportunities around campus elicits a variety of reactions from students; while some may feel that once they accept the limitations on their “Harvard experience”, they can hone in on specific opportunities and appreciate them more, others maintain a strong pull to try to do as much as possible. Maybe it’s an issue of choosing breadth or depth, but however you look at it, it proves to be a major issue for potential study abroad candidates. It is especially challenging considering that junior year, the most popular in which to pursue term-time study abroad, is also likely to be the one in which students could contend for leadership positions in organizations that have been meaningful in shaping their time at Harvard.
Reasons cited by many people who elect to study abroad during term-time often overlap: the total immersion experience, an extended stay in a foreign country, more direct interaction with the native population and its customs, and even a semester away from the Harvard grind. There are also little known perks, like getting out of one Gen Ed requirement (which would have been nice to have known before I took SPU!). And any experience abroad is valuable and highly encouraged here, especially with the variety of funding options available. However, there does seem to be a bit of a stigma associated with term-time study abroad—a sort of subtle assumption that if you’re willing to leave for a semester, you simply aren’t as invested in what you do on campus.
I’m guilty of this reverse pressure myself: when friends tell me that they’re considering studying abroad, it’s all too easy to respond with, “Oh, but then you can’t run for president/board member/director of Organization X!” or “But you would miss Harvard-Yale/Yardfest/Housing Day" . . . the list goes on! It’s unique and inspiring how dedicated the students here are to the things they love, but it can be hindering to outside exploration as well. No one should feel guilty about forfeiting one incredible thing to try another.
Of course, these concerns are not so much of an issue for those who choose to study abroad during the summer or over J-term, but there are other contentions, primarily because, well, it’s summer, and no matter how many classes you’re taking, it still won’t completely feel like school! It’s also a shorter time span, and Harvard programs are not always integrated with foreign universities and may follow their own curricula. Six to eight weeks is enough time abroad to get a feel for your new home but not enough to start feeling homesick, and you come back simply wanting more.
The bottom line is one you’ve heard a million times before: the decision will not be a simple one, but what is important is to make it based on what is right for you at this particular point in your life. I’m sorry I can’t offer anything more groundbreaking to help sway your decision, but rest assured: I have yet to meet someone who has studied abroad during term-time and not found it to be an immensely rewarding experience, and I have yet to meet someone who has not enjoyed time abroad during school breaks. It comes down to personal priorities and balancing pros and cons—and there will be many of each! It is YOUR college experience and only you can really decide what you want to make of it . . . on campus or abroad.