When Eleanor T. Regan ’13 found herself alone in her apartment in Freiberg, Germany, with a defunct light bulb and limited knowledge of German, she turned to the first logical resource she could think of: Google Translate. After a week of leaving Post-It notes on her landlord’s door begging for a new light bulb, she was surprised at the lack of response.
“It was so stressful and frustrating. I can’t tell you how upsetting it was to not be able to communicate with this woman,” she said. “But it was one of those moments that never would have happened at Harvard. It’s ridiculous to assume we’ll always live in a place where everything will be served to us.”
Regan, a Social Studies concentrator and former Crimson arts editor, studied abroad in Freiburg through the Harvard College Europe Program during the spring semester of her junior year. The light bulb incident was just one of countless situations that she says changed her outlook on living in the real world. Like Regan, many students at Harvard find studying abroad during the academic term a life-changing experience—one that teaches not only practical life skills but also broadens perspectives beyond the scope of Harvard’s classrooms.
“Studying abroad made me see the limitless possibility of things and just the pure power of imagination,” says Jinzhao Wang ’14, who also traveled to Freiburg last spring as a sophomore. “When I look back I could almost start crying because I learned so much.”
Yet despite the unique experience offered by study abroad, many undergraduates are still reluctant to leave behind aspects of college life—extracurriculars, friends, and House culture—in order to start anew in a foreign environment.
In the past decade, interest in study abroad has risen and fallen. Eleven years ago, during the 2001-2002 academic year, just 100 undergraduates engaged in term time study abroad, according to data from Harvard’s Office of International Education. That number grew to 242 by 2006-2007, but has since declined to 141 students during the 2010-2011 school year.
But many students who have studied abroad strongly believe that their experiences are ones that every Harvard student should have—and that any reason to avoid leaving Cambridge is an opportunity squandered.
“There are very few times in our life where taking an insane, crazy risk is viable. When else am I going to be able to go live in a country where I can’t speak the language and not have to hold down a job or pay rent?” Regan says. “When else are we going to be put into that scenario where it’s so feasible, possible, safe?”
THE WORLD’S A CLASSROOM
Students recite an exhaustive list of positive experiences when asked about their time abroad.
“Studying abroad has been the most important thing I’ve done on a personal level, intellectual level, and just in terms of life in general,” says Miriam E. Psychas ’13, a joint history and literature and sociology concentrator who spent a semester in Cuba during her junior year. “Literally my college experience for me is divided in terms of pre-Cuba and post-Cuba.”
Whether traveling to the seat of industrialization in Europe or enduring the heat of Africa, participants say they find that leaving the confines of Harvard’s campus actually strengthens their academic purpose.
“As the world is becoming ever more globalized, as change is the new norm, I really feel people should take time studying abroad, actually taking a few classes with people around the world,” says Wang. “Traveling later on in life is different from studying with people your own age.”
Studying abroad can also provide students with a chance to encounter and learn from real world obstacles that may not be a factor on Harvard’s campus.
“I sometimes feel like Harvard hands us a lot of things... The website is easy to use. There’s no way to not get housing. It’s very hard to fail out,” says Regan. “It was great living with people in a place that wasn’t holding my hand.”