Back With the Facts

Students who have gone abroad can offer valuable insight to improve the program

In a continuing effort to improve study abroad participation at Harvard, Director of the Office International Programs Jane Edwards recently invited students to discuss their study abroad experiences as part of a committee that will evaluate and potentially revise the office’s policies. The creation of this panel represents an acknowledgement that listening to students will shed light on the real obstacles that they face when studying abroad.

Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71 has said that he would like to see a third of every class choose to study abroad. It is clear that Gross understands the pedagogical role that study abroad can play in an undergraduate education. Harvard undergraduates should have the opportunity to escape the Cambridge bubble and get course credit for experiencing an alternate perspective abroad.

While more students are participating in the program—the number of students almost doubled this year—the number of students studying abroad is still incredibly small, especially compared to other colleges. Last fall, 51 students studied abroad, and while 93 students are away this semester, this group still constitutes less than 2 percent of the College.

That so few students are studying abroad indicates that students still find the program hard to mesh with their undergraduate careers. The elimination of one Core curriculum requirement for students who are away for a semester and a reduction of the amount of paperwork associated with the process have made studying abroad a more enticing prospect, but many concerns remain. As Harvard reviews its curriculum, Gross must work with academic departments and the Houses to guarantee that students’ transitions back to Harvard are smooth. And even if a quarter to a third of each class chooses to study abroad, as Gross has suggested, the size of the undergraduate population should not be increased—easing transitions back into the House system requires a reduction in the spacing crunch, so that students can be placed with top choice roommates.

Students on this committee will provide the study abroad office a sense of the logistical hassles that students face. Many undergraduates contemplating studying abroad will reconsider if they anticipate that upon their return, they will have been forgotten or misplaced among the Harvard bureaucracies—left without a mailbox or separated from their roommates.

Last Friday’s study abroad fair attracted three times the attendance of the previous year’s fair—more than 1,000 students stopped by, according to estimates. It is obvious that Harvard students are interested in study abroad opportunities, but while the College’s focus on the program has attracted attention, the increase will only be realized if the administration continues to prioritize study abroad and learns from the undergraduates who have returned.

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