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Study abroad deadline hits too early

Alex Caton | Tuesday, February 26, 2013

One day I sat down in an info session for a minor I was interested in at the time. The Professor used the session not just to talk about the minor, but also to give some general advice for any ND student. The most memorable item was: “Get the hell away from Notre Dame. You’ve got to study abroad.” Following that advice, I scrambled this past November to finish a 500-word essay on why I would be a good fit for Notre Dame’s Washington Program and why the Washington Program would be a good fit for me.

On reflection, I didn’t entirely know the answer to that question at the time and still do not. I knew the Washington Program would be a valuable experience, but then again, so would Sao Paulo. Or Santiago. Or Athens. Or Toledo. It all seemed so far off, because it was and still is. The way our University handles the study abroad application process has several negative consequences stemming from one ridiculous deadline.
The first of these, and one which is implicitly written off, is that students effectively cannot study abroad their sophomore year. There are no formal restrictions, sure, but what freshman is even going to think of applying to live in a foreign country for five months when they have barely settled into their dorm? Plenty of freshmen have yet to even venture off campus by Nov. 15. The expectation that any of them would have the foresight to apply for study abroad by then is absurd.

We might be inclined to think this is okay because of the model we have become accustomed to, but there would be numerous benefits associated with a greater number of sophomores doing international study. For students whose fifth or sixth semesters would be better spent in South Bend prepping for the MCAT, LSAT or GRE, or taking more upper-level classes in their major, going abroad fall or spring of sophomore year may be the most ideal time.
Another reason we should reverse the paradigm that only juniors go abroad appeals to the sort of global awareness and action that an international experience is supposed to instill. If a visit to an exotic country inspires an idea for a new service initiative or research project here at ND, that idea has a far better chance of getting implemented if the student still has four or five semesters left here when they return.

These are very real benefits, and they will continue to go untapped if the deadline to apply for nearly all study abroad programs continues to fall in mid-November. Those who aren’t convinced that increasing the number of freshmen who apply to study abroad their sophomore year is a good thing could at least agree that applying in mid-November for a course of study you may not begin for another nine to 15 months is a ridiculous expectation. Put another way, why is it that if I wanted to study in London this June, the application was due last week, but if I want to study there next January, my application was due back in November? It does not have to be this way. At Georgetown, for example, the deadline for fall 2013 international study programs was Feb. 12. Students there who want to study next spring don’t have to apply until next fall.

Now I hate comparing us to Georgetown as much as anybody, but they have international study down to a science. Seventy-six percent of their students go abroad at some point during their college careers, and I imagine we can trace this to how convenient they seem to make it.

Ideally, a study abroad venture not only exposes one to different countries and cultures, but furthers one’s academic interests. These can take a while to form. I, for instance, didn’t declare a major until five weeks ago. Yet the application for the study abroad experience that is supposed to complement those interests was due three months back. What if I had messed up? What if the classes I took this semester led me to think I am really best suited for a semester in China or Uganda? I could go floundering to 105 Main Building and beg to be put on a wait list, but this could be at best a pain and at worst completely futile. Closing the gap between applying for a program and actually beginning it would eliminate this sort of regrettable second guessing.

The Office of International Studies does do a lot of great work. They coordinate 40 programs in 20 countries and manage to get 60 percent of us to study in other countries before we graduate. That is amazing by any standard. And while I’m sure there are some legitimate reasons for the status quo, there are also real ways to improve. A more fluid and responsive study abroad application process that pushes students abroad earlier in their college careers and shrinks the gap between applying and actually starting one’s program will increase the amount of Notre Dame students going abroad and make those who do more productive and satisfied in their programs. This is a multifaceted process, but a logical first step is removing the one-size-fits-all Nov. 15 deadline. It’s one of the parts of the study abroad process that nobody will look back on fondly.


Alex Caton is a sophomore studying political science.  He can be contacted at acaton@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.