Expecting Study Abroad

Internationalization is a laudable goal, but it should not be on transcripts

It has become trite to comment on American ethnocentrism. Across the globe, U.S. citizens are seen as entirely oblivious to the cultures, norms and languages of other nations. The best way to combat this insensitivity is to encourage education in and familiarity with foreign lands. With the recent suggestions from the Harvard College Curricular Review (HCCR), the College is, it seems, making a great effort to instill some of this worldliness in a seemingly indifferent student body. But while we recognize the importance of ensuring that the future leaders of America are well-versed in other cultures and languages, the proposed “expectation” that all students have an international experience during their time at Harvard is unnecessary; and it could prove detrimental to our unique academic and extracurricular culture. Certainly, all Harvard students should be encouraged to study abroad. There is no real substitute for time spent in another country. Students cannot learn the ways and language of another people better than by immersion. Therefore, the College should—as suggested in the HCCR report—vastly increase funds and efforts to expand the number of international opportunities for students. However, the College should not go forward with its proposal to indicate on transcripts whether students have met the “expectation” of studying abroad.

Though the College has done well in its goal to make Harvard’s curriculum more conducive to spending semesters abroad, the fact remains that some concentrations are simply not amenable to time away from Harvard. For instance, it can hardly be expected that all Engineering Sciences concentrators—with a mammoth 20 required credits for a Bachelor of Science degree—will study abroad. Government concentrators, with a more manageable 10-14 required credits, enjoy a more flexible curriculum and could be more apt to spend a semester abroad. Even if the College goes forth with the proposed 12-credit cap on requirements—a move we oppose—some concentration requirements, like those of Engineering Sciences, would not be affected by the cap due to national standards for the BS degree.

But beyond the logistical problems accompanying study abroad, the new “expectation” would hinder many of those who consider extracurriculars vital to their Harvard experience. Most campus clubs and organizations have come to expect their leaders to be present throughout their four years here. Oftentimes, if a student spends time abroad he or she loses out on the chance for eventual leadership. Some administrators have suggested that they might try working with student groups, taking steps to alleviate the pressures on students to remain at Harvard in order to secure a top extracurricular spot. The College, however, should not try to significantly alter Harvard’s extracurricular culture. Students should not be asked to sacrifice the quality of their academic or extracurricular experience. The HCCR report’s recommendations regarding the language requirement, however, are more on the mark. The report rightly suggests that a more intense focus on foreign languages might prove beneficial for students and their level of internationalization. Learning a language is an extremely important way to learn about another culture, and it requires a unique method of thought. And, as it is vital that tomorrow’s leaders be at least familiar with some foreign language—the lack of which is a major problem in this country—requiring more language courses would be a successful method to achieve greater internationalization.The College’s attention to providing students with a more international experience and ameliorating the culture of cultural unawareness is commendable. But rather than coercing students to study abroad with an “expectation,” the College should focus on making sure every student who wants such an international experience can have one. And it should also stick to enriching the Harvard experience here in Cambridge with the proposed tougher language requirement. That way, the College would open up the world to Harvard students without forcing them out of the country.