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Problems with ND study abroad culture

| Monday, February 5, 2018

As the snow falls upon our beautiful home, wrapping the trees in white blankets, the quiet of the winter months is appreciable. But though the cold has descended lightly and softly upon our hushed campus, the weather is not the only reason for the aural change — a large number of students, juniors mostly, have gone off around the world for their semesters abroad.

Nearly two-thirds of Notre Dame undergraduates study abroad for credit before they graduate, according to Notre Dame International. Nearly every student assumes he or she will go abroad, it’s just a matter of choosing which destination and which semester of junior year.

This is a problem, not because study abroad is an inherent evil — it’s not, and many students have incredibly rewarding and worthwhile semesters away from home — but because our current system and culture encourages students to leave campus at arguably the most important time of their academic careers to take easy classes abroad, country hop (and club hop) every weekend and generally enjoy the “party abroad” scene. The administration, and, more importantly, we the students, need to get serious about the problems and fictions of our current study abroad culture.

Full disclosure, I am not studying abroad but did think long and hard about the option (and I’ll articulate my reasons later on).

Allow me to lay out my argument in full: The point of study abroad is to dive into another culture, get outside the Notre Dame bubble and return to campus a more thoughtful, mature and educated student. While there are students and study abroad programs that fulfill this goal, I think we have largely concocted a distorted view of study abroad, claiming to have lofty goals and good intentions while knowingly pursuing travel dreams, Instagram opportunities and adventures with alcohol.

The brochure from Notre Dame International claims that a “serious academic engagement outside your home country is one of the most valuable elements of a world-class undergraduate education.” How many students who are studying abroad or considering it actually take academics into account? How many see it as a GPA booster or a time to get University/non-major requirements checked off? Ask yourself, why are you really going abroad?

When deciding whether or not to apply to study abroad, I couldn’t get past the fact that we only get four years here.

Freshman year is a time of adjustment and exploration and by the time our final year rolls around seniors already have one foot out the door into the real world. Our academic trajectory naturally points to junior year, when we should be fully into our majors, taking our hardest classes (and taking them seriously) and forming lasting relationships with our professors (especially important for those students who intend to write a thesis).

To take a break from our academics at the most crucial time, and to spend that break frivolously, seems like poor judgement. Perhaps we can combat these issue by encouraging more students to study abroad their sophomore year (which would probably require a later application date). We could do more to prepare students before their semesters abroad and push them to really consider and reflect upon what they want to get out of a semester abroad before they embark.

Once abroad, students should be doing more than taking easy classes and changing their evening schedule from a regular list of South Bend bars to their international counterparts. There is a special danger for students who go abroad only to hang out with other Notre Dame students the entire time. Country hopping on the weekends with Notre Dame friends is arguably not the way to see the world. How could you possibly savor any country properly by spending but a few hours in a famous city, and in a different club or bar at that.

I’ve heard amazing stories about real language immersion in Angers, France and have had friends changed by their service experiences with refugees in Chile. I do not question that study abroad can be an incredible and enriching time. Students who study abroad can bring back incredible perspective that our community can benefit from, but we need to seriously examine our current study abroad culture, especially the timing in relation to our academic journey.

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

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