October 6, 2006

Students Seek Foreign Study

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Each year, hundreds of Cornell students decide to leave the campus far above Cayuga’s waters and study in a foreign country for a semester or even an entire academic year. The idea is frightening for some: interacting in a foreign language, leaving friends and adjusting to a new environment is an intimidating prospect. However, the experiences students have abroad are often impossible to attain at their home university.

“In or outside the classroom, [studying abroad] offers a dimension that, wonderful as Cornell is, we can’t always offer in Ithaca,” said Kristen Grace, associate director of Cornell Abroad.

For instance, Morgan Miller ’07, a government and French major, spent her junior year at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques, also known as the Sciences Po, in Paris through the EDUCO (Emory, Duke, and Cornell Universities in Paris) Program. The Sciences Po, a world renowned institution for its excellence in the social sciences.

For Miller, it was an opportunity to gain “another perspective on government and international studies” and experience the differences between teaching methods at American and French universities.

“The French system is very much based on memorization,” Miller said. For her, this method contrasted with America’s “think for yourself mindset.”
For many students, some of the most important lessons abroad are those experienced outside the classroom. Students can have “profound cross-cultural insights,” Grace said. Even subtle culture differences can surprise the most well traveled student.

Sydney Null ’07 spent the fall of her junior year in Tajikistan through the American Council of Teachers for Russian program. Tajikistan, a country once under the control of Russia, became independent after the break up of the Soviet Union.

“[Tajikistan] had a war recently so people are still very cautious,” Null said, “People … think it’s weird if you’re out past dark, especially if you’re a girl. There’re not as many services. It’s very uncertain.”
These cultural differences affected how Null perceived her own life upon return to the United States.

“So many [of the trivial] things you see have no meaning when you get back,” she said, “You don’t need to get into arguments, you don’t need to get involved in esoteric little things … I just felt more balanced when I came back.”

Amanda Suhey ’07 discussed the differences in interactions she saw during her semester in Chile in the Butler University Cooperating Programs in the Americas program.

“Chileans are really indirect people,” said Suhey, “Their ways of communicating how they feel are not clear. Our North American directness is blunt to them. You have to read between the lines a lot.”

Each year more students are having experiences analogous to those of Null, Suhey and Miller. According to the 2005 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, the number of U.S students studying abroad has quadrupled between 1985 and 2003. This rate continued to grow even after 9/11.

Most of the students who choose to study abroad major in the social sciences. According to the Cornell Abroad Annual Snapshot 2004-5, 44 percent of students who study abroad are in the social sciences vs. only 3.5 percent in engineering and 13.3 percent in physical and life sciences. Because of the rigid engineering and science curricula, it is often more difficult for these students to leave campus without extensive planning. An engineering major, for example, “probably needs to start thinking about [study abroad] his or her freshman year,” Grace said.

Beyond scheduling conflicts, a primary concern for students is finance. At Cornell, financial aid will be calculated as usual. This means that if a program is more expensive than Cornell’s tuition, the extra cost will be calculated into a student’s financial aid package. However, financial assistance programs at lower tuition universities tend to give wealthier students an advantage.

“At some schools you have to take a leave of absence or they don’t have financial aid [for study abroad],” Grace said.

With the increased interest in study abroad, there are more fellowships offered by various programs and the U.S government that allow students of various financial backgrounds to study abroad. One such program in development is the Abraham Lincoln Study Abroad Fellowship.

According to the mission statement, their vision is to “send one million students abroad each year by 2017” and have these students accurately represent undergraduate populations. The commission claims that international education will benefit “the state’s economic competitiveness and growth.”

According to Grace, the U.S. government has put funding towards international study in countries “that are strategic interests for the United States.”

With these growing resources, it is no surprise that more and more students want to complement an education at even the most prestigious American university with a semester or year of study abroad.

“You have a lifetime to be a tourist,” Grace said, “but this opportunity to have a real local identity, a student life — you are there to really live in it.”