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Leaving vs. Leading: Debating Study Abroad

By Saritha Komatireddy, Contributing Writer

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.

“[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.

“On the one hand I feel that I have a responsibility to the organization and by extension the people that we all serve, and on the other hand I feel like I have a responsibility to myself,” says Adams, who dedicated more than two years to the council and now serves as vice-chair of the Student Affairs Committee.

When Stef E. Levner ’04, co-captain of Radcliffe Heavyweight Crew, was debating whether to study abroad, rowing was a “major factor.”

But after several senior team members advised her to seize the opportunity, she flew to Spain last fall and still managed to return in the spring to row with the NCAA Championship-winning team.

“I was definitely more than two steps behind my teammates when I returned from Spain,” Levner wrote in an e-mail. “It is impossible to parallel what the team does on your own, especially in Europe, where people will look at you like you are insane for running streets for exercise.”

Despite the extra training she needed upon her return, Levner says, “I do not regret a moment of my experience abroad.”

Losing Leaders?

As more students like Levner choose to study abroad, some student organizations worry they may lose valuable leadership.

David K. Kessler ’04, president of the International Relations Council (IRC), one of the largest student organizations in the College, says he is concerned.

“I’d be particularly worried that the same people who serve as officers, often the most dedicated and talented, would also be the most likely to want to study abroad since their [international relations] interests run deepest,” he says.

Indeed, Edwards says the “pattern for study abroad nationally is students in the top third” academically, many of whom are also very active in extracurriculars.

But Buttigieg says organizations could also benefit.

“Of course we hate to lose someone for awhile, but if they are committed to the organization then they will return, and when they do come back they’ll have a fresh perspective both from their new experience and from simply being above the fray for a while,” he says.

The Changing of the Guard

But some say the choice between extracurricular leadership and studying abroad should be avoidable.

“I definitely lament the fact that I even had to make the choice at all,” says Adams.

Organizations could change their election processes and timelines, according to Council President Rohit Chopra ’04.

“Going into leadership almost always requires you to be here for three consecutive semesters,” says Chopra, who says he discussed this problem when he served on the Committee on Undergraduate Education.

Instead of stretching election processes across several semesters, Chopra suggests that organizations could confine them to a semester.

“[Organizations will] learn how to adjust when they realize that people are going to have to make those tough decisions,” he says.

Though she questions the practicality of changing procedures, IRC Vice President Swati Mylavarapu ’05 agrees. “I don’t doubt organizational structure is going to have to change,” says Mylavarapu, who considered studying abroad next semester but decided against it.

If organizations move towards semester-long leadership positions and more frequent turnover, she says, the change may lead to greater inefficiency.

Other student leaders, like Phillips Brooks House Association President Ayirini M. Fonseca-Sabune ’04, also express skepticism of changing the process.

“It’s pretty important that the student leaders get chosen before the semester starts,” she says. “I think the timing is really crucial to transition.”

Edwards, the director of the OIP, says change is possible.

While she says Harvard does not necessarily have to follow suit, she points out that other college campuses are able to accommodate up to half of their students studying abroad.

“Some of those structural issues [at Harvard] can change, and may,” she says.

Though she says study abroad is a “significant international experience” which “everybody should have,” she says students can also pursue international experiences through summer internships or post-graduate studies. And many student leaders agree.

Meanwhile, as students and organizations struggle to figure out how study abroad can fit into their plans, Gross acknowledges, “This will be a slow cultural change.”

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