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Taking Abroad View

Sending us away could be the best thing Harvard ever did for us

By Sarah M. Seltzer

On page 10 of “Harvard Rules” (the perusal of which occupied my eight-hour travel day at the end of spring break), would-be muckraker Richard Bradley has this to say of our illustrious president Larry Summers during his undergrad years at MIT:

“According to one family friend, Summers wanted… to study abroad; his mother, however, discouraged it, arguing that MIT was too good a place to leave for a semester. That was one of the few arguments Summers lost.”

If only he had won that argument.

I spent much of the ensuing week, bolstered by the Committee on Education Abroad’s recommendations to expand study abroad funding, imagining what life for Harvard, nay, the world, would be like, if Summers had left Cambridge for a semester his junior year. And what if the countless undergrads whose mothers urged us in the same (non) direction as Summers’, or who worried about the cost of studying abroad, could hop the pond, or the equator, or both?

Studying abroad is not just about globalization and global business, which is likely the main reason Summers now touts student travel. Nor is it just about the partying (though excellent indeed), as its detractors would have us believe.

Instead, its most important contribution to the studier is the way time in a foreign country wrenches our minds open. I know this not only from my own junior fall abroad in Ireland; it’s corroborated by my blockmates, friends, and brother who spent time in New Zealand, Prague, Uganda, Glasgow, Paris, Havana, and London. The new insights granted from time abroad aren’t something that everyone needs—but they are a benefit we Ivory-towerites, not just our president, could use.

Outside the U.S., and particularly the northeastern seaboard, dropping the H-Bomb has a much less pleasant effect. Whereas in New York, “Harvard” brings an “oh, you must be so smart,” elsewhere it often brings a raised eyebrow and an “oh, you must be so rich”—or just a raised eyebrow.

That’s because issues of class remain much more explicit around the world than in the ambition-driven U.S. At Harvard, the ever-present gap between the prepschoolers in their BMWs and the aid recipients who worry about paying off loans remains under the surface. But just because we’re the leader in financial aid programs doesn’t mean we can’t do more to change our culture and push forward an agenda of equal opportunity (one way to start would be to give financial aid students complete funding for study abroad). After seeing the alienation the Harvard name brings to the eyes of people around the world, we all might look more carefully for alienation and resentment on our own campus.

My friends and I all traveled close to the beginning of the Iraq war, and all faced a steady stream of outrage at our military, at our president. It was embarrassing when I realized, as a guest at my foreign university, that all the student protest was not directed at the school’s administration, or even at their country’s government, but at mine. Every weekend, residents of my host city Galway would take a two-hour bus ride to Shannon airport to protest its use as a stopover point for U.S. troops. There was anger, palpable anger, everywhere. And this was in Ireland, where everyone has an American cousin.

If Summers had seen this, even on a smaller scale, he might think differently about his support for ROTC and the CIA and his antipathy towards student protests (which are after all, a globally used tactic). He might just listen more, in general. And we all might think twice about issues surrounding our patriotism—or lack thereof.

This is not to say that not everything abroad is peachy keen: xenophobia, racism, and homophobia were far more prevalent in my Irish town, welcoming its first wave of immigrants, than at Harvard. Elsewhere, my friends saw poverty and repression. Our eyes were opened to evils beyond the ones we knew. One can’t see these things and remain unaffected.

But the lessons are not all explicitly political. One crucial notion that Harvard students and our president might absorb from time abroad starts in a place called the campus pub—found in most universities outside the Puritan New England belt. It’s not the drinking symbolized by the pub that matters (though a pre-lecture Guinness is delightful). It’s about having one place, one central place, for every single student, whether they’re fomenting revolution or playing a trivia game. My brother met a lass or 10 at his student union, a friend of mine sat up late talking with a professor at his campus pub.

“Getting ahead” does not subsume happiness in a culture that appreciates students as people. In Ireland, there was little talk of “climbing ladders.” And such a culture creates a different, more peaceful, less angsty way of life—one nearly all my friends noticed in their various outposts around the world. If every Harvard junior came back bringing a little bit of that lifestyle to our campus, how different it would be. And if Larry Summers had spent a semester abroad as he wished, who knows how Harvard history might be rewritten?

We are Harvard; we like think of ourselves as the best. And we do live in a global age. The faculty should enthusiastically endorse the expansion of study abroad at Harvard, and the College should be able to fund every single student who desires the experience. Taking these steps would show a concern for students’ well-being that has been remarkably absent as the Faculty and Administration continue to tangle for power.

Sarah M. Seltzer ’05 is an English concentrator in Lowell House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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