September 16, 2014

SUSSER | Is Going Abroad the Answer?

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There are pluses and minuses to going to a school like Cornell — where the drive of the student body both motivates us to raise our collective academic bar and inhibits our freedom to take chances in the pursuit of success. I have always enjoyed being challenged in my classes and feeling at the end of the semester that I have legitimately learned something. But after my sophomore year, I had a strong feeling that I was still missing something in my college experience. There definitely must be more to these formidable four years than just organic chemistry mechanisms and Collegetown annexes. Maybe I should go abroad, I thought.

With plans to eventually go to medical school, moving to another country for a semester was a delicate subject — in the back of my mind there is always a laundry list of requirements to fill, deadlines to meet and tests to take. Going abroad would only complicate my meticulously planned schedule. I deliberated whether abandoning Cornell and packing my luggage to experience the hyped Eurotrip would be worth it, with hopes of finding myself in a new area, free to explore whatever it is I wanted to explore. In this frustratingly intense period of introspection, I produced every possible permutation of my schedule that could facilitate a term abroad. I contemplated nearly every country in the globe as a possible option, from Nepal to Buenos Aires. I felt like there were two mini-me’s, each camped out on a shoulder for the summer, incessantly explaining to me why I should or shouldn’t leave the country. This self-inflicted source of stress was seemingly unnecessary — a product of my New York City-borne neurotic tendencies. Nevertheless, the more I fretted over this global nightmare, the more I began to view it as a broader dilemma than what it was at face value. I began to think that my reluctance to go abroad stemmed from my Ivy League environment.

Temporarily leaving the security of my pre-professional track goes against everything I have been instructed to do as an Ivy League student. The driven nature of Cornell students creates a certain way of viewing the academic experience. Frequently, I find myself being too focused on the next step and in the process, missing what’s around me. Where did the past two years of college go?

It’s fairly obvious that we all want to be successful. As the recent New Republic Ivy League expose noted, we are apparently so accustomed to success that we develop a deeply entrenched and debilitating fear of not only failure, but also the idea of being imperfect. Imperfection is unsettling and failure is unfathomable. This is our tragic flaw. Our compulsions for success, and the resulting clouding of academic purpose, is akin to baseball’s steroid-era emphasis on individual statistics — home runs, strikeouts, wins, etc. — and devaluation of the integrity of the game.

To put it in economic terms, we got to where we are today through a competitive advantage in our abilities to game the system. We knew how to approach college applications. And the positive reinforcement we received from our abilities to market ourselves provided a model for future success. We used our advantages as pawns, craftily making each move like a young Bobby Fischer. For many of us, our advantages came from wealth. For others, it might have come from a niché skill or experience. Regardless of how we got to where we are through this advantage, our experiences and interactions with one another are currently reinforcing a dangerous perspective: that learning and education is rooted in its ability to provide future success. It has become too difficult to free ourselves from the tangible satisfaction of job offers and grades and seek out the intangible gratification of life experiences and knowledge.

So is this part of me justified in my thought? That I should take the safe route and stick with the plan? Is this model for success legitimately rewarding? A decision to go abroad would create a lot of uncertainty about the future. But I think that this sort of uncertainty can be healthy and could potentially result a grounding experience. Maybe I will learn things I never anticipated in taking this route. Maybe I’ll meet people and visit places that will shape who I am for the better. In choosing to stay put, I would be a fool for avoiding the thrill of the unknown. But on the other hand, my “life is like a box of chocolates” argument may be flawed. Maybe I’m eager to go abroad merely as an opportunity to flee from the collective anxieties of the Cornell campus. Going abroad could just be disguised hedonism, devoid of any semblance of intellectual stimulation. The fact that the abroad experience has become so deeply intertwined with the modern collegiate experience could be a colossal academic scam — an excuse to take a semester-long vacation and enroll in faux classes. The true college experience could be right at one’s feet at Cornell if they avoid succumbing to the pressures of perfection.

While study abroad may not be as contentious for other students, everybody faces similar dilemmas on a daily basis. The paths that we choose to take in the four years that we’re here are important — ask any alumni. Often times, it is too easy to be safe and choose what we feel is the most pragmatic option. Although it may be hard to imagine, the decisions we make in college set the precedent for how we choose to live our adult lives. In the time that we’re here, we should set aside our egos and question why we make our respective life choices. It’s important to always keep perspective and ask yourself why you are truly choosing to commit your time and energy to something. If you choose to spend it on something you believe in, something you’re passionate about or even something you’re unsure of, then you stand to gain a lot here — or there.

Philip Susser is a junior in the College of Human Ecology. He can be reached at [email protected]. An Ithaca State of Mind appears on alternate Wednesdays this semester.