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Many people told me to cherish every semester at Harvard and not let a single one go. Yet — much to the dismay of my friends, family, and even thesis advisor — I instead made the unpopular decision to do exactly the opposite: to pack up my books, let go of Harvard, and fly overseas for a semester. And, you should, too.
I want to begin by expressing my rather unobjectionable support for the slim minority of Harvard undergraduates— in 2015, the Harvard Political Review reported the figure as less than 4.5 percent — studying abroad during any given semester. Despite study abroad being one of the highlights of many college students’ experiences across universities in the United States, it remains an extremely uncommon choice for Harvard students.
You may regret not studying abroad, but I doubt you will regret actually taking the plunge and doing it. Indeed, some iteration of this sentence has been whispered to me by many a former study abroad student who then proceeded to retell the whimsical travels, relief of academic stress, and forged friendships from their time in a foreign country, most often during their junior spring semester.
Since it is so uncommon for Harvard students, I think study abroad alumni try their best to avoid discussing the downsides of it. While I do think that all students should study abroad, I find it important to also mention the less glorious parts of the experience: loneliness, discomfort, unfamiliarity, and fear of missing out.
I am studying abroad at the Jesus College of the University of Cambridge this semester. Though it has only been a few weeks, there have definitely been some incredibly hard moments. I have felt completely lost and overwhelmed by being thrown into an entirely new environment in the middle of their academic year as well as mine; I have felt estranged from my closest friends and most comforting confidantes; I have honestly sobbed myself to sleep and begged to return home. And from casual conversations with other study abroad students, these kinds of experiences do not seem to be entirely unique.
The bigger picture, though, is that these tough moments, and the many more incredible ones that accompany them, have pushed me to grow in immeasurable ways academically, socially, and personally. My experience thus far is entirely different than it has been for the past two and a half years at Harvard, and it prepares me well for life after graduation. I am living pretty much entirely on my own, including grocery shopping and cooking for myself. I am taking one-on-one supervisions here at Cambridge, which means I don’t interact with any other students intellectually. Instead, I am spending an extremely personalized and tailored time with leading scholars in their respective fields. I have the unique opportunity to travel the world easily, seeing different cultures and peoples all across Europe on literally a weekly basis. In my experience, the social life here is much more centered around pubs than it is clubs, or Final Clubs for that matter, making it foreign but much more accessible.
In fact, my experience at Harvard will be so much richer because of the time I spent away from it, not in spite of that. My academic experience will be stronger because I have had to read and write at the level and in the style that Cambridge requires, while also participating in classes held that very much challenge my established rhythm. I will be stronger socially and more appreciative of the close-knit community that Harvard offers. I will also be more independent because studying abroad inherently forces an uncomfortable, but meaningful degree of solitude. Lastly, I will be re-energized to return to Harvard after spending six months focusing on personal and academic growth, with the comfort of also knowing that classes are pass/fail.
Despite all of the hard moments that there have been, I have never once regretted my decision to leap across the pond for my junior spring semester. Harvard, in all its glory and in all its stumbles, is fairly consistent. Incremental change and progress are indeed always happening, but nonetheless it is a predictable place. Over the course of a four-year undergraduate experience, the difference between having seven or eight semesters living in the Houses and going to class in the Yard does seem rather negligible. In fact, I feel better suited to return to Harvard for my senior year, with a newfound appreciation of all that Harvard provides that other esteemed institutions like Cambridge do not. Indeed, I will be armed with the knowledge and reflection that six months of being away from the Harvard bubble has given me. I will be ready to come back and fully take advantage of Harvard, as a re-energized senior who missed the sense of home elicited by Harvard, but grew immensely because of that.
While many people will tell you to not let go of a single semester at Harvard, I believe that studying abroad is not only a valuable experience in and of itself, but also makes every other semester at Harvard so much better. It may be unpopular, but study abroad is worth it. And, while there is no certainty that it will be easy — indeed, it probably won’t be — the one thing anyone who has gone abroad can guarantee is that you will never regret it.
Reshini Premaratne ’21 is a joint concentrator in Social Studies and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations in Currier House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.
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