The Northwestern study-abroad brochure begins with a quote by Colin Powell. He speaks about how it’s “important for American students to learn other languages, experience foreign cultures, and develop a broad understanding of global issues.”
For years, this has been how American students justify the thousands of dollars they dole out every year to learn in other countries. However, papers such as USA Today have recently questioned study abroad and how seriously students take the experience, and New York’s attorney general is investigating the merit of programs selected by Northwestern and other schools.
Many of the 200,000 American students who go abroad every year stay well within their comfort zone, often spending only a semester or a quarter out of the country. Many visit Western countries, such as England: In 2005, Congress reported that about 67 percent of study-abroad students went to Europe, while only one percent ventured to the Middle East. Often, they stay in international dorms with other English-speaking students. This kind of attitude inhibits any hope of cultural immersion, and defeats the purpose of a trip abroad. Perhaps the most questionable study-abroad programs, however, are those that offer semesters on cruise lines that occasionally stop off for a quick tour of a passing country.
Some students at Northwestern acknowledge that parts of their experiences haven’t been the most immersive.
Jesse Sleamaker recalls meeting his friends in Prague. “They were all staying together, and none of them knew a word of Czech,” the Weinberg junior says.
Heidi Dessecker remembers how it was revealed at a study-abroad reunion dinner that “many kids’ ‘cultural experiences’ were basically partying in the international dorm.” As an international relations major, Dessecker is considering studying abroad again, but fear of ending up in an international dorm gives her second thoughts about applying.
But an equal number of students seem to have avoided the temptation to exploit study abroad, and instead fulfill its intended purpose.
Sleamaker himself spent six months in Italy learning the language. “To me, language and culture are inseparable,” he said, explaining how he used Italian to familiarize himself with the local culture. By the time he left, he was practically fluent. Sleamaker added that he learned a great deal about himself and his priorities. While he conceded “the [classroom] workload was a joke,” the real-life experiences he had in Italy — and the Czech Republic, France, Switzerland and Slovenia, which he visited in his spare time — more than made up for it.
Amy Danks was just accepted to a program in Bolivia, and is prepared for a rigorous experience. She says, “I’m certainly not expecting to go on vacation.”
The Weinberg sophomore will live with an indigenous family, meet top government and economic leaders, and participate in a six-week research project. “The program director doesn’t even know English, so it’s not going to be easy,” she says with an anticipating smile.
Dessecker, who spent the summer in Uganda, studied hard to prepare for her trip. While she was there, she worked on readings and other assignments by herself. “We essentially had to teach ourselves everything,” she says. She also had an internship on the weekdays.
So a lot of what is advertised in Northwestern brochures (the opportunity to “Develop New Perspectives on Academic Subjects and Real-World Issues, Experience Personal Growth,” etc.) isn’t BS. Students actually can learn something from these experiences that they wouldn’t while taking the usual classes on campus.
Undeniably, some students essentially twist the idea of study abroad into “party abroad.” However, there are also students here who try to get as much out of being in a foreign land as they possibly can.
Does Northwestern need to re-examine its study-abroad program? Not exactly. Could we be more stringent when accepting credits from study abroad? Sure. Because really, how different is taking a semester of joke classes while living in an international party dorm different from taking a semester of joke classes while living in Bobb? Some standards must be held.
The study-abroad program at Northwestern is neither broken nor perfect, but there’s no need to worry about its decline. It’s up to each study-abroad student to decide whether or not to take the opportunity seriously.