When I first excitedly told Harvard friends and classmates that I would be studying abroad in Buenos Aires for my fall 2012 semester, I did not quite get the upbeat “Bon Voyages!” I was expecting. Reactions were mostly negative. They ranged from: “How could you ever think to leave Harvard for a semester?” to “You can do that during the summer,” and finally the brutal, “The only people that go abroad during the year hate school or have no friends.” Almost every student seemed to think studying abroad during term time is, at best, unnecessary and, at worst, a waste.
Harvard’s Office of International Education website offers statistics that reflect Harvard students’ overall aversion to studying abroad. The most recent numbers, from the 2010-2011 school year, show that only 141 out of Harvard’s roughly 6,400 students went abroad during the school year. More do go abroad during the summer, but the total of Harvard students engaging in international experiences is still strikingly low. Even including summer, only 598 students had had an abroad experience. With the discouragement of classmates and these OIE numbers, I feared perhaps my choice to go to Argentina might be a bad one. I said a gloomy, “Hasta luego” to all.
However, now that I have completed my fall semester in Buenos Aires and am preparing for my spring semester back on campus, I believe urgently and whole-heartedly that more Harvard students need to study internationally, especially during term time. The negative reaction and culture that surrounds studying abroad at Harvard is close-minded and shallow. Harvard students tend to get so obsessed with the Harvard world that they begin to have no interest in exploring the outside one. For such an international and diverse school, it seems wrong that so few of us stray outside our comfort zones.
Of course, my time abroad was not perfect, and there were moments when I yearned for the sound of the Lowell bells instead of the incessant reggaeton blasting from the streets outside my window. But my experience taught me so many things in just a few months that I never would have learned in the classroom. Seeing thousands of Argentines banging pots and pans on the streets in opposition to President Cristina Kirchner showed me a protest movement very different than Occupy Wall Street. On a trip to Paraguay with my program, we visited a torture chamber created by dictator Alfredo Stroessner to hold anyone suspected of communist beliefs during Operation Condor. Listening to an old prisoner and touring the grounds where countless people had suffered taught me much more about the importance of democracy and freedom of thought than any Gen Ed ever could.
Living in a completely different culture and having no choice but to speak in Spanish was both challenging and stimulating. I became stronger because of the difficult days when I could not communicate with my host family no matter how hard I tried. When our conversations did flow easily, I became more aware of politics and problems I had never known about before. I now am lucky enough to have friends who live in a completely different part of the world. Before I went to Argentina, “long distance” implied the Quad.
Studying abroad during the school year is the only way to combat the epidemic of FOMO (“fear of missing out”) that plagues this campus. Many students I talked to stressed that they were afraid to go abroad. They were nervous they would miss something gigantic or would return to find everyone had forgotten them. This is a silly and irrational obstacle. Leaving Harvard for a semester does not mean leaving Harvard forever. We do not have to be at every event, go to every party, or be in every Harvard-Yale Instagram photo.
There are two tangible reasons why studying abroad during the year makes more sense than traveling over the summer. Firstly, a few months in a country is more enriching than a few weeks. It is only with committed time and constant interaction that one can feel deeply immersed in a place. When departure is only a few weeks away, it is hard to feel settled or at home. Secondly, studying abroad during the year is a better bet financially. Financial aid follows a student during term time or a year abroad. While there are funding sources to study during the summer, it is not guaranteed.
Going away is perhaps not for everyone. Maybe you have a job or too many requirements for your concentration to take time away. You may have taken a gap year and thought that was enough. Or maybe you just don’t like to travel, which is perfectly understandable with the state of airplane food today. But there should still be more of us taking the chance to do something off the beaten path. Coming back to school now, I feel I have a very necessary perspective. I think less about all of my little Harvard complaints (Lamont café sandwiches, for example) and instead am excited to embrace all the opportunities that our school offers.
Isabel H. Evans ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is an English concentrator living in Adams House.
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