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Leaving vs. Leading: Debating Study Abroad

Stephanie R. Hurder ’06 had planned to spend her spring semester on the other side of the globe.

But when she was elected president of the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra (HRO) last month, Hurder decided to forgo her trek to New Zealand.

“Study abroad seemed like a wonderful, broadening opportunity, but when it came down to it,” Hurder says, “I couldn’t pass up helping to run the HRO, which has basically given me a sense of place and identity on campus.”

Though Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71 has made a major push towards increasing the number of students who study abroad—aiming for one-third of each class to study abroad at some point in their college careers—many students are hesitant to leave.

The number of students currently studying abroad still falls far short of that goal. While that number has nearly doubled—from 51 students last spring to 93 students this fall—it constitutes less than 2 percent of the entire College.

Many students suggest their attachments to extracurriculars—and their desire to lead them—as the main tie holding them back.

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“[There is] a model of student leadership in organizations that’s very deeply embedded here,” according to Director of the Office of International Programs (OIP) Jane Edwards, who says she frequently discusses the dilemma with students.

And Gross admits that the influence of extracurriculars in College life makes studying abroad more difficult.

“We could make all kinds of changes in the curriculum to make room for study abroad,” Gross says. “But one of the great obstacles in this will be securing status in extracurricular activities.”

Leaving vs. Leading

For Peter P.M. Buttigieg ’04, president of the Student Advisory Committee to the Institute of Politics (IOP), studying abroad was never an option.

“My involvement in campus organizations is one of the main reasons I never seriously explored studying abroad,” he says. “Groups often have year-long commitments and leadership structures that can create career tracks which are difficult to interrupt.”

Many students echo Buttigieg’s concerns, noting that years of dedication to campus organizations cannot be discounted.

Gross observes that many students have “paid their dues” in extracurriculars, a factor that discourages them from studying abroad.

But some students still decide an experience in another country is worth sacrificing leadership opportunities.

Sheila R. Adams ’05, an active member of the Undergraduate Council who many members expected to see as a candidate for the presidency this year, cited study abroad as the main reason behind her decision not to run.

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