Point/Counterpoint: Applaud Abroad?

Two editors debate the merits of studying on foreign shores

Time (and space) to think

Recent data from the Office of International Programs shows an encouraging shift in student attitudes toward study abroad. Students are becoming less reluctant to leave these hallowed grounds, though there is still a firm contingent that disparages courses taken abroad as less rigorous than those at Harvard. But a few months spent even in a less intense academic environment will still present students with at best a valuable intellectual opportunity, and at very least some time to think. Surely, this is a good thing.

The flurry of support for international programs is a testament to this The number of students at Harvard who study abroad each year has grown by 300 percent in the last six years. Former Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby was a staunch supporter of study abroad and David Rockefeller ’36 recently donated $100 million to the college, 70 percent of which was intended to go towards students learning about foreign cultures through international travel.

With the amount of financial aid being dedicated to international programs, even less privileged students now have the opportunity to visit and study in environments far removed from Cambridge. But even as domestic student homogeneity erodes, the international student body remains limited in socioeconomic range. This dynamic makes a wide variety of international experiences at Harvard all the more valuable.

Specifically, time to think during junior year is important for potential thesis writers. Without the constant demands of papers and midterms, juniors studying abroad have time to refine thesis topics and conduct original research far before they have to choose an advisor or commit to a topic. Very few non-study abroad students have this luxury. In particular, making headway on thesis research during junior year is useful for students who wish to hold summer internships before their senior year. Students who spend that final summer working often find themselves back at Harvard in September with a job, but no idea what their thesis is about. Planned well, study abroad can allow students to avoid having to choose between graduating with honors and securing a job before senior year.

And even if study abroad turns out to be less about thinking and more about resting, very few seniors would disagree with a few months’ rest before the sprint of senior year, with its burdens of neglected core requirements, thesis-writing…and senior bar.

Emily C. Ingram ’08, a Crimson editorial editor, is a government concentrator in Eliot House.

Too far afield

Boston, like all major port cities, is a mudroom to America. And, as is often the case, the door to the outside is more exciting than the door to the inside. The international terminal of Logan Airport, high-ceilinged and abuzz with travelers, invokes adventure and exoticism. North Station, by contrast, is a dark concrete platform in the shadow of the Boston Garden. There’s no adventurers here—just commuters, lined up to travel into the country’s inner rooms.

No wonder Harvard students are so anxious to stamp their passports. Study abroad has everything we’ve come to desire in life. It’s intrepid. It’s photogenic. It’s got all the aesthetic attendants of multiculturalism. Sometimes it’s got a sheen of philanthropy to mollify our liberal concerns. So, goaded on by the administration, we pack our bags, register our Blogger accounts, and skip off to make our way abroad.

But what are we leaving behind? For many Harvard students—especially those raised in culturally-starved quarters like the Upper East Side or Pasadena—traveling 60 miles inwards to Athol, Massachusetts might entail more of a lifestyle shock than traveling 4,700 miles outwards to Athens, Greece. Too many study abroad programs operate in elite enclaves, little Harvard facsimiles. Those that don’t tend to bear the suspicious scent of noblesse oblige.

Advocates of international studies argue that sending bright young Americans abroad will build connections of understanding between our country and the world. No doubt this is true. Trouble is, bright young Americans are already on better terms with bright young Afghanis than they are with poor old Americans. We’re throwing our energy at cultural ambassadorship even as respect for the intelligentsia collapses throughout Middle America. Oughtn’t we consider some serious outreach efforts on our own territory?

It’s unfair to say that international study doesn’t enrich lives. It does. All the while, does it really make sense to have an Office of International Programs that’s housed in privileged University Hall real estate and commands a significant share of administrative and financial attention? An academic community which turns its back to the world is rightly pilloried as isolationist. But one which turns its back on its own countrymen is in perhaps worse straits. North Station might not be as glamorous as Terminal E. But a progressive education is not about glamour.

Garrett G. D. Nelson ’09, a Crimson editorial editor, is a social studies and visual and environmental studies in Cabot House.