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John Harvard's Journal

Beyond Cambridge

3.1.01


Illustration by Mark Steele

I don't have many regrets about my undergraduate years at Harvard--but I do wish I'd taken a semester abroad. I decided against it for various reasons, all sounding progressively less valid as friend after friend returns from around the globe with exciting stories and a fresh outlook.

Anyone who has studied abroad will tell you that it's the best choice she ever made. It seems that Harvard, too, reaps benefits: "You come back and you're able to focus in such a different way," says Elena R. Chavez '01, a Romance languages and literatures concentrator who spent last spring studying in Seville.

Many Harvard faculty members and administrators have sung the praises of study abroad. Most recently, dean of admissions and financial aid William Fitzsimmons '67 coauthored a paper encouraging students to take time off, either before matriculating or during their undergraduate years, to catch their breath and gain some perspective (see "Harvard to Applicants: Chill!," page 68). Study abroad for academic credit, even though it does require students to enroll in another formal education program, is one way to achieve these effects, Fitzsimmons said recently: "One of the things we've seen with people who've gone away for a semester is that they come back with an entirely different perspective on America, on themselves, and on where they're going in life."

Yet each year, fewer than 200 of Harvard's roughly 6,600 undergraduates go abroad, according to the Office of Career Services (OCS). The relative paucity reflects strenuous requirements and an administration that can be less than supportive, students say, although professors and administrators point instead to students' own initiative--or lack of it. "This has been a big problem at Harvard for a very long time," says Fitzsimmons. "The idea of getting people to step back and take time off in the face of all the on-campus attractions is a major institutional priority. We've got to start speaking out about it."

 

Some people are speaking out. Charles S. Maier '60, Krupp Foundation professor of European studies, has long been one of the strongest proponents of study abroad. "I've always found this place rather resistant to study abroad," says Maier, noting that he first began teaching history at Harvard in 1967 and adding, "I don't think it's changed at all" in the years since. The University's attitude "is just very conservative."

In December Maier presented what he calls a "very preliminary idea" for a five-year, combination bachelor's and master's degree with an emphasis in international studies, to Provost Harvey V. Fineberg '67, in an effort to help study abroad become part of Harvard's structure in some concrete way. Fineberg reports that Maier's proposal is in "the early discussion stage"; he believes that "the best ways to promote international studies and study abroad are a very worthwhile subject for faculty discussion."

Last year, Undergraduate Council representative Michael Shumsky '00 decided to raise the study-abroad question before the Committee on Undergraduate Education, on which he sat. Shumsky, who is a transfer from Wesleyan University, was floored by the two schools' different approaches to the topic. At Wesleyan, he says, "It's brought up at your very first freshman advisory meeting--which acts as a powerful symbol that the university encourages students to think about study abroad early and plan ahead." But at Harvard, "study abroad is mentioned only when students bring it up, and they are basically told to figure it out for themselves without much institutional support." One of the chief complaints Shumsky reports, in fact, is the dearth of good advice: departmental head tutors are unfamiliar with study-abroad programs and just "rubber-stamp the student's choice without being able to provide any comparative perspective or suggest a good alternative in most cases."

So Shumsky, too, set out to change things, forwarding complaints to the committee. Committee members pledged to foster increased communication between OCS and head tutors to enable them to learn more about individual study-abroad programs. But they were unwilling to accommodate more flexible scheduling of papers and final exams for students with overseas academic-timing conflicts. Reforms like these--major policy changes and adjustments in attitude--take time, if they happen at all. In the meantime, students say there is still much the University can do to make it easier for them to study abroad.

 

Long before she came to Harvard, English concentrator Elisabeth S. McKetta '01 hoped to study at Oxford. But when she went to OCS to investigate programs that she could take for credit, the list was disappointingly short: only two Oxford programs were preapproved, and neither offered the experience she sought.

OCS maintains a list of programs in every country that have been approved by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences' Standing Committee on Out-of-Residence Study. Josephine Jane Pavese, OCS's study-out-of-residence adviser and therefore the public face of study abroad at Harvard, is one of the eight committee members.

Students who want to study abroad in programs that aren't preapproved must petition the committee, which makes an evaluation. The most common reasons for rejection, Pavese says, are that a program is too short; that it uses American instructors instead of local professors; that students are not integrated into the local culture; or that the program does not offer adequate support services. "There are some really bogus programs out there that are disorganized, ill-administered, and not someplace we'd want to send students," adds Deborah Foster, assistant dean for undergraduate education.

The current approval method makes for a small list, which can discourage students who don't want to risk seeking approval for a program that might be rejected. "The criteria seem extremely vague," says associate professor of government Louise Richardson, who in six years as the department's head tutor dealt with all concentrators hoping to study abroad for credit. "It appears to students that the only reason a giv- en program has been approved is that another student has gone there."

When McKetta tried the official approval channel, the program for which she petitioned was rejected--so she applied directly to Oxford and was accepted. In the end, she spent her junior spring at New College, where she had hoped to study, and received academic credit. She lived in a dormitory with British students, rather than one full of Americans--the fate of friends who went through the preapproved programs. She became accustomed to an academic curriculum that consisted of professors asking her which books she had enjoyed reading and then assigning books with similar styles and themes. And now she is back at Harvard, writing a novella about her experience abroad as her senior thesis in creative writing for the English department.

Though it took some elbow grease, McKetta in the end realized her dream of studying in England. Whether or not the difficulties she encountered are purposeful, the fact that it takes effort is actually a positive thing, administrators say. "Study abroad here is student-driven--but I think of that in a good sense," says Pavese.

Part of the rationale for the stiff requirements is to ensure that students find an educational program on par with Harvard's. "There is a high standard for study-abroad programs, but all Harvard's standards are high," says history professor Susan Pedersen, dean of undergraduate education. "For us, it's not just, 'Are students doing something they couldn't do here?' but 'Are they doing something better than what's offered here?' You can't simply pack your backpack and go anywhere and get credit for it."

Sentiments like this frustrate people like Maier. Study-abroad supporters maintain that the academic nature--or lack thereof--of any given program comes second to the international experience. "Students should go to Italy and just have a great time for a semester," Maier says. "They should also learn something. They should come back and forget it if they want to forget it, because they'll be better for having done it."

Harvard's present policy does not embrace that attitude. So students continue to formulate plans that will get them the academic credit that will allow them to graduate with the rest of their class, and continue to receive financial aid.

For students on aid, study abroad can turn out to be a sweet deal indeed. Their Harvard stipend may exceed their foreign fees, leaving them enough money for extra travel. In fact, the comparatively low cost of most foreign programs leaves even those not on financial aid in good financial shape. McKetta was able to take a six-week jaunt through Dublin, Edinburgh, Paris, Bordeaux, Madrid, Seville, Barcelona, Nice, Rome, Florence, Pisa, Venice, Zurich, Bern, Brussels, and Bruges.

 

Even students who enroll in a preapproved program find the petition process nearly prohibitive.

They must submit multiple copies of their petition, signed by their House senior tutor and their concentration's head tutor, and a personal essay. Unlike other schools, Harvard requires students to include a detailed list of the courses they plan to take. This entails obtaining course lists from foreign universities, which often don't even compile them. "It's not impossible to get credit," says Elena Chavez. "It's just more arduous than we would like. The fact that people have heard that it's such a pain discourages them from even trying."

Faculty members like Louise Richardson are trying to change that. In her years as head tutor, Richardson says, she signed off on any course of study that seemed reasonably appropriate and challenging. "It's quite possible that they didn't learn as much in the classroom as they would have at Harvard," Richardson explains, "but the experience of learning about Ecuadorian politics in an Ecuadorian classroom is worth a lot in and of itself."

But discouraging factors other than a harrowing petition-process exist--even the very fact that Harvard doesn't run any programs abroad. "Some schools have developed their own programs, which gives an impression that they are more supportive of study abroad," says Pavese. "But that's only an impression."

If Harvard did have such programs, says Deborah Foster, "that would really be limiting," because students might assume those programs were superior and not even consider the many valuable non-Harvard options. Besides, adds Pedersen, "The University cannot set up Harvard in 25 countries, or 40, or 90. We would like to find ways to help our students get to unusual as well as usual destinations without setting up campuses around the world."

Finally, the relatively few students who do study abroad may be a self-reinforcing phenomenon. Pavese suggests that many undergraduates spend all four years in Cambridge by personal choice. Many, she says, find themselves choosing between spending a semester abroad or putting in the time to work their way up to a leadership position in a student organization.

But those who have studied abroad say this is perhaps the most important reason Harvard students should go away. "It wasn't a safe choice for me," says Chavez. "I was very scared, and that's why I realized I had to do it. I never knew that a reality so different existed. You see documentaries, you read National Geographic, but I was on a camel in the middle of the Sahara."

 

Two years ago, Boston native Lauren McLaughlin '01 had never traveled outside the United States. An economics concentrator, she had landed a summer job with a pharmaceutical and biotechnology consulting firm. By Harvard standards, she was doing everything she was supposed to. But she decided she needed a change.

After considering several options for study abroad, McLaughlin spent her junior fall studying economics at the University of Melbourne. While there, she took a course on the economic development of East Asia. Something clicked, and when she returned to Harvard, she began making plans to spend her senior fall in Hong Kong. Today, McLaughlin is the first Harvard student in OCS memory to spend two semesters in two different countries during her undergraduate years.

"My traveling made me less concerned with Wall Street and getting a job at an investment bank," she says. Although she is applying to investment-banking firms during spring recruiting, she says she is also considering options that "never would have come into my mind before!"--returning to China to teach English and polish her Chinese, or the Peace Corps. "I learned what it is to live in a Communist country, what it is to be poor," she says, "and I think that's important when you're at Harvard, where you have everything handed to you."

When it came to study abroad, McLaughlin didn't have everything handed to her. Her preferred program in Hong Kong didn't meet the regular Harvard requirement of 12 straight weeks of class, and so she was told it wouldn't be approved. But she argued that the program's first two weeks--consisting of economics seminars in three different Chinese cities--should be combined with the 10 weeks of normal classes to satisfy the demand.

The program was approved--and McLaughlin faced her next challenge: having missed fall semester, she could not enroll in the introductory Chinese course that Harvard required her to take. The College then wanted her to study Chinese in summer school. But the prescribed course's hours conflicted with McLaughlin's summer job--the source of income she needed to help pay for her study abroad. She appealed to the committee again, and eventually got permission to take an evening course equivalent to only one semester rather than two. Her success, McLaughlin says, goes to show that Harvard is willing to accommodate a student's genuine wishes.

Pedersen concurs: "It's one thing if students find it hard to go because they don't have the energy to do the planning. But if they're saying to us, 'I can't go because I have 47 requirements and nobody will give an inch,' that's different."

 

Despite the benefits of making students work to study abroad, the College has made the path smoother. One such change, adopted about 10 years ago, is that students seeking credit for classes abroad are no longer required to obtain signatures from the department heads into whose fields each class falls. Today, students need only the signature of the head tutor in their field of concentration. The new policy, Foster says, properly rests the decision in the hands of the single person who is most likely to know the student and his or her academic history already--and may already have dealt with the particular foreign-study program in question.

Another change for the better is the reduction of course requirements for a third to a half of all undergraduate concentrations, including history, English, German, and anthropology--"some of the big study-abroad concentrations," Pedersen says. Moreover, the foreign-language citation program, introduced in the fall of 1998, explicitly recognizes students for achieving proficiency in a foreign language--something they can put on that all-important résumé.

More changes loom. Pavese plans to step up publicity efforts by increasing the focus on recruiting students through the residential Houses. "We have a good relationship with the departments," she says. "What we haven't really done is go to students on their own turf." And she says OCS is working to put parts of the application process on-line to avoid the paper chase that inevitably ensues on application due dates.

But easy or not, study-abroaders say, a program that's a custom fit is well worth the trouble. "People just look in the book at OCS and say 'Okay, I'll do that,'" says McLaughlin. "They should really find a program that fits exactly what they want to do."

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