SIFTING through my mail the other day, I found my high school's alumni bulletin, and headed straight for the report on my class. Among the news of promotion to the Navy Seals and the Most Valuable Player awards, I found "Kathy, having spent her sophomore year in Rome, is now readjusting to ordinary life at Georgetown." This seems unfair--my report, had I bothered to send in the little card, would read, "Jeffrey, a junior at Harvard, has a passport solely for the purpose of identification."
My domestic status seems permanent, since Harvard does not have its own program for overseas study and is reluctant to give credit for outside programs. What many other institutions regard as a vital component of education here turns into a haphazard, difficult quest. Students, forced to turn to outside agencies, often have to choose between a fascinating experience and their desire to graduate on time.
Numerous problems face an undergraduate who wishes to study overseas. Most notably, credit is notoriously difficult to receive, since many programs do not meet Harvard's demanding and unique requirements such as tutorials and the Core Curriculum. If Harvard developed its own overseas programs, it could arrange reciprocal relationships with foreign schools, tailored to Harvard's specifications.
For the time being, however, students wanting a broadening experience are forced to evaluate the vast numbers of competing, independent enterprises. Besides help from the Office of Career Services (OCS), which one student trying to make it overseas called "basically nonexistent...no help at all," there are very few available resources to help with this decision. Even if undergraduates locate suitable programs, they still have to get an OCS-approved form outlining their proposal a few months in advance, "obtain various signatures indicating academic and administrative approval"--as the OCS Guide to Study Abroad so helpfully explains--and then apply for credit, which is hard to obtain.
OBVIOUSLY Harvard wants to keep its students in Cambridge. As an English major. I had hoped to spend a semester or year in Great Britain studying English literature, but the labyrinthine procedure was very intimidating as a freshman, and then tutorials and other necessities discouraged the thought permanently.
I now wish I had taken sophomore standing so in my third year I might have taken leave to study abroad. Still, this option isn't open to everyone, and it requires foresight in September of freshman year. Also, with 16 required concentration courses, as well as the unavoidable eight Core classes (which can only be met at Harvard), I don't even have time to drive to the airport. Summertime is the only option left, but many students--myself included--need these months to earn money for tuition.
Other students have launched preliminary study abroad efforts only to abandon them when the hassles became too great. Those who do end up travelling only succeed after a near-Herculean individual effort. There even seems to be a pervasive myth that study abroad projects cannot count for credit at all. This attitude influences freshmen and sophomores, who do not even explore what could be a rewarding experience.
ONE peculiar Harvard quirk contributing to the problem is our annual schedule, which is quite different from the rest of the civilized world's. Since most other universities begin their second semester in January, many of the spring programs leave before our exams are over.
A student I know going to China this year had to select a trip that would allow her to finish taking her January exams. Since the academic calendar, after repeated attempts by students, appears unchangeable, Harvard should feel obligated to sponsor compatible travel programs.
If Harvard University is honestly "interested in facilitating serious foreign study for credit," as the OCS Guide claims, it should want to see students find the best schools. It seems logical that Harvard, with its strong reputation in international academia, could establish programs at the best institutions in any country. Travel companies, without Harvard's clout, can offer no such guarantees.
Comparable schools like Stanford and Duke actively promote foreign exchanges--which they consider vital to rounding out students--and use their overseas connections as recruiting draws. Harvard ought to move out of its out-dated isolationism and help students gain first-hand exposure to the world outside the (617) area code.
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