The relative isolation and quaintness of Ithaca in many ways enhance the Cornell experience, but can also preclude the development of a globalized student perspective. To address this perceived shortcoming, President Skorton last month released the white paper “Bringing the World to Cornell and Cornell to the World.” In the paper, he announced his goal “to ensure that no fewer than 50 percent of undergraduates have an “‘international experience’ … by the time they graduate.”
The promotion of international experiences is well-intended but ignores financial implications, the disparate nature of Cornell Abroad programs and the benefits of spending eight semesters on Cornell’s campus. Studying abroad isn’t a unilaterally good or feasible option for all Cornell students.
For American students, studying abroad is becoming more commonplace. According to the Institute of International Education, the number of U.S. students studying abroad for academic credit more than tripled from 1990 to 2010. 230,752 American undergraduates pursuing bachelor’s degrees studied abroad in 2009-10, 14 percent of the total. Comparatively, the paper noted that 27 percent of Cornell undergraduates studied abroad. While the concept of spending time abroad in college was foreign to our parents, it now seems to be an increasingly ubiquitous part of the undergraduate experience.
President Skorton and other proponents of studying abroad note such an experience allows students to learn from and interact with diverse cultures, thus better preparing them to succeed in an interconnected world. But can everyone afford to study abroad? And are all study abroad programs created equal? These are questions that would need to be addressed before embarking on an initiative to increase student participation.
The affordability of international experiences is a significant concern for Cornellians that must be addressed. Since Cornell largely doesn’t administer abroad programs, tuition varies greatly. In addition to program tuition, students studying abroad pay $3,995 per semester to Cornell. Financial aid is still an option, but work-study funds are converted to student loans, a far more precarious proposition for many. The cost of living abroad is also by and large greater than it is in Ithaca. In fact, the four most popular destinations for U.S. students studying abroad in 2009-2010 were all in Western Europe, meaning unfavorable exchange rates and high costs. Absent from Skorton’s initiative is recognition that some students may not be able to take on such a financial burden.
The issue of access to study abroad programs is augmented by the unique nature of many Cornell academic programs. Engineers, for example, cannot easily substitute a semester in Ithaca for one elsewhere. An effort to increase the number of study abroad participants would have to facilitate experiences for all students and take into account our diverse curriculum.
The standards and nature of Cornell Abroad programs also raise questions. With few exceptions, Cornell doesn’t operate its own programs or campuses internationally. Instead, it partners with organizations, other universities and study abroad providers. Obviously programs directly run by universities are of academic merit. But the involvement of third-party entities can undermine the academic component of a semester abroad.
It’s no secret that certain abroad programs are more rigorous than others. Two of my good friends are studying abroad in the same city this semester through different programs — while one is thriving in a language-intensive, university environment, the other is amazed by the lack of work and low standards he has been faced with. Before encouraging more students to study abroad, Cornell must critically evaluate the relevance of each Cornell Abroad program to a Cornell education and determine that each program additionally meets the University’s academic standards.
While there are many difficulties that Cornell must address before pushing to increase the number of students studying abroad for a semester, promise lies in efforts to increase the availability of shorter-term experiences. While 56.6 percent of American students studying abroad in 2009-10 did so either over the summer or for eight weeks or less, such options are currently lacking at Cornell. Those with campus commitments and financial limitations could more easily access such experiences, but the present lack of financial aid for non-semester programs would have to be addressed.
The greatest flaw of the plan to increase international experiences is the insinuation that spending eight semesters in Ithaca results in an inferior education. Many of the students most involved in campus life, governance and activities choose not to go abroad because of their commitments to the University. Additionally, there are so many courses and other opportunities on campus that it’s impossible to cross every item off a Cornell bucket list with even eight semesters, lest seven. While international experiences offer wonderful opportunities if properly executed, they also come at the cost of what many would see as an essential semester in Ithaca.
I personally chose not to go abroad, and I don’t regret that decision for a minute. Many other students come to a similar conclusion, and not for lack of information or opportunities. We elect to spend the entirety of our undergraduate careers on campus just as students in Cornell Abroad programs elect to spend a semester abroad. Which begs the question: Who benefits most from a dramatic increase in the number of students with abroad experiences? The statements of Skorton and others indicate the initiative would help increase the University’s international profile and stature. Thus it remains to be seen whether the initiative is more aimed at benefiting individual students or Cornell as an institution.
For individual students, the decision to go abroad should still be seen as having both benefits and drawbacks. The goal to ensure 50 percent of undergraduates have an international experience, I fear, would foster an environment dismissive of the merits of each choice. But before such a goal is even considered, it is vital that Cornell address current issues with Cornell Abroad related to finances, access, academic rigor and short-term programs.
However important it may be, the University’s international stature should not take precedence over its mission to facilitate “any person … any study.” A more proper goal for Cornell would be to provide students with the proper information and resources so that they can freely decide if an international experience is right for them as individuals. Bring Cornell to the World, but not blindly or unwittingly.
Jon Weinberg is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. In Focus appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.