Why do so few students study overseas?
Why do so many Harvard students, who leave the campus in such large numbers at other times, still choose not to study abroad? Students who have actually gone abroad for credit almost unanimously say they were satisfied with the experience—but Harvard’s bureaucracy and lack of a university-sponsored overseas program make actually getting off campus the hardest part of the process.
Officially titled the International Experience program, study abroad began in 1949 and allowed students to receive concentration credit only. This program remained largely unchanged until Dec. 14, 1982, when the Faculty of Arts and Sciences voted to make it easier to receive any credit, concentration or otherwise, for international study. The current program, headed by J. Jane Pavese, is run out of the Office of Career Services. As has been true since 1982, any student in good academic standing can apply to study abroad if the intimidating amount of necessary paperwork is submitted on time.
Jody E. Flader ’02 says it was “a bit of a hassle” to get approval for work she did last spring in Florence, Italy, bemoaning the large amount of paperwork involved.
Rebecca B. Eisenberg ’02 has the same complaint. “I’ve been back for almost a year now and I’ll still receive forms from the psychology department that I need to fill out,” she says. “There’s so much bureaucracy.”
Applying to officially leave Harvard to study abroad and receive credit in a foreign country is not a simple process. While there are no official deterrents, the quantity of paperwork does scare off many interested students, as does the possibility of not receiving credit for work done abroad—petitions for credit are submitted upon a student’s return to Harvard.
There are many other requirements which work done abroad must meet to earn credit, such as the 1991 Special Opportunity rule, which requires that at least half of all coursework done abroad must represent a “special opportunity” not ordinarily available at Harvard. If study is done in a foreign country, “special opportunity” will usually be interpreted as “directly related to that country.” Additionally, for study in non-Anglophone countries, a year of foreign language study (or equivalent competence) must be completed prior to petitioning, and all courses must be taken in a country’s local language. Students must also go through the general procedures—petitioning the Administrative Board and notifying the Undergraduate Housing Office—followed by students on leave, since they are not considered to be enrolled in the College while doing foreign study.
Despite the bureaucracy, 80 percent of students who study abroad receive some concentration or elective credit. Upon their return to Harvard, students submit proof of successfully completed coursework from their overseas host institution to their concentration, which will fill in “credit granted for work done out of residence,” without course titles or grades attached. The only Core for which students can possibly receive credit is Foreign Cultures, but that requires a separate petition to the Foreign Cultures subcommittee of the Core program.
Departments’ attitudes toward study abroad can differ considerably. Students in the humanities and social sciences, regardless of the number of required courses and tutorials, go abroad more often than those in the natural sciences, where it is more difficult to create a strong area focus. “The anthropology department was great—they recognized the value of international experience,” says Nicholas M. Donin ’02, who studied at the University of Sydney in Australia in the fall of 2000.
About 75 percent of Harvard students who leave do so during their junior year, as is the trend at other colleges. “Junior year was the perfect time to go abroad. I went during my fall semester, which can be a stagnant time in college for anyone,” Donin says. “The timing was perfect—it was an adventure that I can never have in that type of way again.”
Going abroad second semester usually means having to take fall term finals, which are sent to the host university, while away from Harvard. “The only downside of my experience was taking my January finals in Florence, although it’s certainly not insurmountable,” Flader says. “Because Harvard’s calendar doesn’t match up with that of most other schools, I had to study for exams right after I arrived, when I wanted to explore my new surroundings.”
Another negative students mention is returning to the Harvard campus. “When I was abroad, I felt so alive. I did everything. I went to bed happy and woke up psyched about the day,” says Michael T. Peller ’02. “I find myself getting in a rut now at Harvard because the students here are rather unfriendly. People are too busy to say hello, too busy to stop and enjoy themselves. The people I met while studying abroad were generally upbeat, easygoing people, especially the people I met while traveling. I miss that the most.”
Not all Harvard students go abroad for concentration credit. Laura I. Martinez ’02 manipulated her course of study at Harvard so she could take four electives during her junior spring. “I always knew I wanted to go abroad, but my time in Florence didn’t line up with my course of study. But I was still able to do it.” As it turned out, Martinez, a sociology concentrator, was granted concentration credit for one of her classes upon her return to Harvard.
Another one of the joys of going abroad purely for elective credit is that the situation is that academics need not be too intense. Since all classes show up Pass/Fail on their Harvard transcript, students are afforded time to take advantage of their chosen country. “Every day is such an adventure—anything can happen,” Donin says. “I was able to learn a lot outside the classroom, which was facilitated by the low-pressure academic situation.”
These satisfied study abroad alumni say they wonder why Harvard seems to discourage the experience. “It’s a shame Harvard students are not specifically encouraged to go abroad,” Flader says. “Sometimes it seems as if the attitude is that Harvard students can’t get the same quality of education elsewhere that we can get on the Harvard campus.”
According to administrators, Harvard’s policy promotes international experience at any time of the school year—spring, fall or summer (when up to two course credits can be earned)—rather than exclusively during the academic year, as is the case at other colleges. “Many students,” writes Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68, “especially in the sciences, where Harvard provides the best education in the world and there is not the obvious curricular connection that there is in the literatures, history or elsewhere in the humanities and social sciences, would prefer summer experiences, short-term programs like the Weissman Fellowships [which fund student-initiated summer internships outside the U.S.] or postgraduate study opportunities.”
“I think all these should be part of the mix, not just term-time study abroad,” Lewis writes.
Strong campus ties are another deterrent to going abroad. From House loyalty to executive positions in campus organizations, which often run from spring to fall, Harvard students can provide many reasons for wanting to remain on campus for four consecutive years. But veterans of the International Experience program beg to differ. “It’s easy and comfortable to get stuck in the Harvard community,” says Nicholas S. Lenicheck ’02. “Going abroad was a chance to get out of that comfort zone, to get away and gain perspective on life. I felt free to do things because I wanted to do them, without my friends, parents or professors looking over my shoulder.”
One of the unique benefits of the Harvard program is the fact that students can bring their entire financial aid package overseas with them. Institutions such as Stanford that sponsor their own programs abroad and also allow students to go on other schools’ programs will often only send financial aid packages with students who are on the programs that they sponsor. Harvard, with none of its own programs, simply pays the host institution in any of the approximately 35 countries in which Harvard students are studying.
But when it comes to receiving credit for courses taken abroad, students say they think Harvard’s lack of sponsored overseas programs is disadvantageous. “I think Harvard should do something to make it easier for students to get credit for work they do abroad,” Donin says.
One of Flader’s main issues is with the difficulty of obtaining Foreign Cultures Core credit while abroad. “It’s ridiculous that they don’t automatically give you Foreign Cultures credit when the entire idea of studying abroad in any context is to learn about another culture,” she says. “Additionally, the fact that students don’t know whether or not they are receiving credit for coursework completed abroad until they return is a big problem for many students. Not everyone can be that flexible.”
It is not a secret that Harvard is not as study abroad-friendly as most other top colleges. “Historically, Harvard just doesn’t encourage its students to go abroad as much as other institutions,” says Kristin Moritz, director of international programs at Brown University.
Though no sweeping changes have yet been put before the Faculty, signs point to study abroad reform as a distinct possibility in the near future. University President Lawrence H. Summers has repeatedly expressed interest in making study abroad more accessible, and Lewis has suggested that encouraging more students to study abroad might ease overcrowding in Harvard’s 12 upperclass Houses.
In November, a report on study abroad made its way to a meeting of the Faculty, where several professors expressed their view that too few students take time away from Harvard. One of those leading the drive for reform is outgoing Dean of Undergraduate Education Susan G. Pedersen ’81-’82. Pedersen—who was part of the last class to graduate from Harvard before the most recent study abroad overhaul—says she believes the time may be right for another major change. “I do think that Faculty attitudes towards international experience and study have become more favorable over the past decade,” she says, “and that many now share the view that our own rules are unduly restrictive and should be liberalized.”