April 20, 2010

Cornell’s Big Abroad Problem

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Last fall, when my travel lusting-self was busy deciding where I was going to spend four lucky months fighting off parasites and trying to speak in a broken foreign language, I confronted a good friend about where he was studying abroad.

He wasn’t, he told me. Between his college’s academic requirements, where-you-can-go limitations and costs, it had just become “too hard.”

Unnamed friend wasn’t the only one who faced this problem. Other unnamed friend (heretofore known as OUF) had her sights set on India, even though C.U. required an extra 4,000 buckaroos (since it wasn’t a Cornell-validated/run program) and had put up all sorts of extra hoops for her to jump through. Three weeks before her departure, OUF found out some other Big Red Hoop had screwed her yet again (bye, bye India).

The difficulty in taking your education outside of Cornell for a semester is not uncommon. And yet it’s rarely discussed. For a school with so many students (a fair number of them “international”), a school that claims cosmopolitanism, a school with smaller colleges in Qatar, France and even an offshoot in Rome, we really … aren’t.

I am not such a tool (read: don’t have a getting punched-in-the-face wish, once in a lifetime is enough, thank you Homecoming sophomore year) that I’m going to make this a “why you need to go abroad,” or “why going abroad was the best decision I ever made in my life” column. I don’t like preaching, and there is no choir backing me up. But for an academic culture that prides itself on endorsing growth and knowledge and new experiences, we don’t do a good enough job — both the students, and, I’m sorry to say, the administration — in actually encouraging students to do so.

A and S’s requirement of two years of language study are understandable, and other colleges’ rigorous academic schedules are necessary. However, both limit  busy students’ ability to find the time to take preparatory courses and live in countries they didn’t decide they wanted to study in first semester freshman year. Outside of Arts and Sciences (where many of you live and breathe), it can sometimes be easier, but is often harder. I think of my friends studying pre-med or engineering who just couldn’t manage it. And the few (although really interesting) summer programs available to students who can’t go abroad during the year are not promoted by Cornell Abroad as a rule.

Why is it that small schools like Pitzer send their students pretty much everywhere, but the majority of Cornell students who do go abroad end up in Australia or Western Europe? That isn’t to say that said experiences are any less valuable. There is nothing wrong with studying abroad in an English-speaking country — in fact, English is the dominant language in regions from Africa to the Caribbean. There is nothing wrong with forgoing study abroad entirely — if you chose not to. But too many students aren’t given the choice in the first place.

Because a great number of students — students who often don’t voice their concerns or frustrations that they can’t study abroad in Zambia or Venezula, especially in India — would have probably gone abroad, or gone abroad somewhere else, if the University first, offered greater support, and second, really encouraged its students to study somewhere off the beaten path. When people ask me how I ended up in Nepal, I often explain that it just happened … because it did. I was lucky enough that one of my advisors runs the Cornell Nepal Study Program. Otherwise, I probably would have ended up in the U.K., or back in Israel (which while an abroad experience, is, I have to admit, no more foreign to me than hanging out in New York). Each of these is and would have been an incredible experience — I’m the first to admit that I (to be fair, a lot of us) have opportunities for world travel most people would kill for. I’m not going to pretend I’m not lucky, or maybe even “spoiled.” And it may seem odd that, for my second-to-last column, I’m talking about study abroad, but when I think back to the Cornell experiences that really forced me out of my comfort zone, and taught me the most about the world and about myself, going to Nepal — on a program that offered complete support and prioritized cultural immersion — is at the top of the list.

One of Obama’s best qualities is that he spent a large portion of his childhood abroad. While most of us won’t be president (if you are, let me know, we should be buddies), there’s no question that immersing ourselves in and understanding other cultures is going to be essential to our futures and America’s role in the world. If you can’t go abroad, or don’t want to, there are plenty of other options after college. At a time when Cornell is seriously reconsidering what its academic layout will look like for the next 20 years, it’s time for C.U. to align its educational priorities — inside and outside of the classroom — with its cosmopolitan ideals.

Julie Block, a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences, is a former Sun Arts and Entertainment Editor. She may be reached at jblock@cornellsun.com. WTF, Mate?! appears alternate Wednesdays this semester. 

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Original Author: Julie Block