February 6, 2024

POGGI | Planning your Abroad Experience: What No One Tells You

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I still remember my Cornell info session during fall break of my senior year of high school. While most of it fades into blurry memory, one part stands out: When the Cornell admissions team advised all of us that any person, enrolled in any study, could study abroad.

I write this from Florence, Italy, having in some ways fulfilled said prophecy. However, I would say that the process of studying abroad, particularly as someone on the pre-medical track, is far more difficult than advertised.

I’ll start with the basics: Many of your classes taken abroad will not count for your major. They may count for your college (Cornell credits), but some will just be “throwaway classes” (aka classes required for your program that don’t yield any credit back home). Most programs do not factor your abroad grades into your Cornell GPA.

For this reason, studying abroad needs to be carefully planned from day one, or at least semester one. If you’re an engineer or pre-med or otherwise have many year-long class sequences (think CHEM 2070 and 2080), many of these classes must be taken your freshman and sophomore year (if you plan to study abroad junior year). If you have major requirements that are only offered in one term, for instance, a lab only offered in spring, you must think about that when deciding which term to study abroad or which year to take that class. If you are in Arts and Sciences, you may want to align your language requirement with the language of a destination you may want to travel to abroad. A friend of mine who studies Farsi at Cornell was limited to English-speaking countries due to the A&S requirement, while others enrolled in other colleges (including myself) can pick from a myriad of regions regardless of national language.

Beyond destination, few people talk about the merits of a program vs. a university, housing options and the financial difficulties associated with certain cities. A program may assign you an apartment, roommates and help with a visa, while a university may leave you figuring out housing and class enrollment by yourself. Especially for expensive cities like London or Paris, finding roommates to agree to extortion-level rents on short-term leases can be difficult, and often requires networking at Cornell months if not years in advance. 

Not only do finances matter when it comes to housing, but so does campus culture. While I live with three roommates, all of whom attended Cornell, we are the only apartment in our building housing students, and by luck of the draw, we ended up in a placement much farther from the main student areas and our class locations. On the other hand, people in dorms may have a greater proportion of students in their vicinity, but less independence and fewer amenities.

For me though, the biggest barrier to studying abroad was the difficulty associated with planning my courses to graduate on time and fulfill my major. While many pre-med students take their MCAT the summer before senior year, which allows for maximum completion of prerequisite classes, I took mine over the winter break of my junior year to ensure I did not need to take a gap year to study abroad. I am so grateful for my decision and even if I do take my gap year, I have no regrets about going abroad. 

However, I had very little guidance about how to best schedule my MCAT and was often told that my situation was “unusual” rather than given advice. I chose my program partly out of interest in Italy, but mostly due to the fact that it was one of the few that started after the first MCAT test dates of the year. In order to fulfill my major requirements, I took semesters overloaded with credits and may have to take summer or winter courses or request course substitutions in my senior year.

Academics can also take a hit in another way. As I mentioned, my program offers few classes aligned with my major. On the one hand, this encouraged me to branch out, taking classes about Renaissance art history and business. On the other hand, a lack of autonomy in course selection and scheduling proved stressful and demoralizing after making such sacrifices to attend my program.

Beyond academics, I found myself saving money from summer and academic year jobs to afford a more luxurious abroad life. Many students eat out for most meals, and with the norm of weekend travel, flying from a non-hub city like Florence racks up costs quickly.  

Don’t misunderstand me — I am having a great time and am not trying to complain. For all of the sacrifices I made, I am beyond grateful for the offerings provided by Cornell and the support of my family while I am abroad. I do not mean to discourage students or criticize the Cornell programs; I simply want to show that going abroad is not as easy as it may seem. Nor is the process as indiscriminate as advertised.

As I continue my experience abroad, my column will explore various facets of studying abroad as a Cornell student. It felt fitting, however, to start the semester by recapping the many hours of planning and meeting that enabled this experience.

Julia Poggi is a third year student in the College of Agriculture & Life Sciences. Her fortnightly column The Outbox is a collection of reflections, advice and notes to self about life at Cornell, with a focus on coursework-life balance. She can be reached at [email protected].

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