September 11, 2012

Any Person … Any Study … Anywhere?

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For the past week, I’ve been navigating the complex world of signatures, essays and nail-biting that accompanies the weeks before Cornell Abroad’s September 15 deadline for application forms. Counselors, deans and other University administrators have been instrumental in explaining the complicated process to me. Their strong capabilities make possible President Skorton’s goal, enumerated last year, to have 50 percent of Cornell students engage in an international experience prior to graduation.

The problem is that President Skorton’s goal has yet to be clearly fleshed out in full view of students. Other than Provost Kent Fuchs and Provost for Medical Affairs Laurie Glimcher’s new University-wide committee charged with articulating Cornell’s international future, I was hard pressed to find a clear reaction within the Cornell administration.

I agree with President Skorton that increasing the percentage of students who have international experience is not only going to prove beneficial to the University’s future viability, but will greatly enhance individual students’ academic experiences. Every discipline — pre-professional or liberal arts-focused — is enhanced with a comparative paradigm. This cannot be achieved without real, tangible international experience. This might come in the form of a semester, a summer or a winter break spent abroad.

Studying abroad in the languages is obviously beneficial, in the sciences can create new partnerships and coordination, in the humanities can explore comparative approaches and in the social sciences can inform our future policies. The importance of a comparative approach to our studies cannot be overstated.

In fact, I think the strongest reason that there is not a 100 percent requirement of international experience for all Cornellians is the cost. This type of experience, so valued by President Skorton and the rest of the administration, is really only not required for everyone because not everyone can afford it. Obviously, some exceptions exist; for example, students who need to be under the tutelage of Ithaca campus faculty to complete rigid programs of study in eight semesters. But for many students, if made a mandatory part of the academic experience studying abroad would be possible.

Outside of the academic exceptions, this issue of cost is indeed pressing and deserves financial resources more than any other issue aside from financial aid. Despite the respectable University policy that applies Cornellians’ financial aid to time abroad, experience in summer and winter breaks, airfare, Cornell’s $3,200 surcharge and other fees can render international experience difficult or impossible for many students. Time abroad is denied to many students, even as policies enabling an ever wider portion of students to afford Cornell at all have improved over the last 20 years. It is, therefore, one of the major frontiers of inequality among student experiences at this institution. University development officials should seek donations to initiatives supporting international experience and existing resources should be diverted to it.

The administration and Cornell Abroad should seek out student involvement in new policies. Forums and inclusion of students on University-wide committees are good ways to come up with standardized policies. To achieve President Skorton’s goal, not only will the University have to make international experiences accessible financially, but it will also have to incentivize study and experience abroad. Student input will be extremely important to the latter, since we students know best what will create an academic experience where time abroad seems both important and reasonable.

A major area where Cornell could improve its abroad policies is in the College of Arts and Sciences. Arts and Sciences is home to the largest population of students and a language requirement, two characteristics that could help the University boost its percentage of students with time abroad. But it is also the place at Cornell where, even if financial resources were more available for students seeking international experience, students are less incentivized to be abroad.

College is a time of exploration. It imbues us not only with knowledge and reasoning skills, but also time management and planning skills that apply to life inside and outside of the academic realm. The administration’s requirement that Arts and Sciences students study the language of the country they will study in prior to departure requires a degree of preparation that is neither realistic nor productive.

Moreover, students are almost certainly less likely to study abroad once their choices are limited to English-speaking countries only. Preference for a foreign country might not be rooted in a student’s study of the home language; it could be the culture, the people or the foreign institution a student desires to attend. A student will only learn a language if she or he really wants to learn that language. Allowing Arts and Sciences students to attend English-language programs, as long as they take a language course once in-country, will give the most choice. The more choices students have, the more likely it is that they will become excited by the prospect of international experience.

Indeed, any specific measures geared at increasing international experiences at Cornell would help, inside or outside of Arts and Sciences. I would therefore encourage President Skorton in pursuing the goal he laid out last spring and the University in its initial, tepid efforts at supporting him thereof.

Maggie Henry is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at mhenry@cornellsun.com. Get Over Yourself appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Maggie Henry