January 26, 2010

Foreign affairs

Yearlong study abroad programs deserve more consideration

This winter, U of C students are applying to study abroad for a summer, quarter, or for an entire year. With fourteen different Civilizations programs, four language-based programs, and seven thematic programs at the Paris Center alone, why look for anything else? In other words, why consider a yearlong program? Isn’t that what a “third year abroad” used to mean?

The quarter programs are growing by the year, and not without good reason: they are special and worthwhile opportunities that all U of C students should take advantage of. But as their support grows, the list of students going abroad for their entire third year stays the same. The idea has lost its allure next to quick, ten-week programs with Chicago professors and straightforward credit transfers, so that students leaving for all three quarters are now few and far between.

In the 2003-2004 academic year, only one out of eight students opted for a yearlong U of C accredited program. In the 2008-2009 academic year, this ratio changed to one out of every twelve students, with 459 students spending a quarter abroad in contrast to 38 students attending a yearlong program. By comparison, in 2003-2004, about the same number of students left for a year (36) but only 309 students left for a quarter. This shows that while the interest in the quarter program has increased significantly over the past five years, the interest in the yearlong programs has stagnated. There are a variety of reasons for this increase, namely the addition of new quarter programs in Jerusalem and in Paris. The overall enthusiasm for study abroad is unquestionably an asset to the University, but I believe that the yearlong programs deserve as much of the spotlight as the U of C-run quarter programs.

Equipped with a FLAG grant and high expectations, I left Chicago at the end of my second year to go to Germany. I went in July of 2008 for two months of language preparation before joining with the Berlin Consortium for German Studies (BCGS), based at the Free University (Freie Universität) in Berlin. There I took five courses a semester, three of which were with German students, one with students in my program, and one advanced language course with international students also spending a year abroad.

A year abroad is incredibly rewarding, but it requires patience. The challenges I am most proud of overcoming involved making a new home for myself in a foreign country. It is possible to experience this during a ten-week stay; however, ten weeks into my year in Berlin, I was nowhere near fully settled. It was not until the dreary winter gave way to beautiful spring weather that I realized that it had become my home. I was responsible for that transition. By finding my way in a university of 31,000 students, immersing myself in the language, and finding a community of German friends, I really achieved something on my own.

A quarter program eases the transition to a foreign country, supporting students both by providing housing and a community, if small, of fellow U of C students with which to explore a new place. In that sense, perhaps ten weeks is just enough; a lot of the harder parts have already been taken care of. But accounts from friends who have gone on wonderful and mind-altering quarter programs all share the following two critiques: they regret that it was so short, and say that they would have liked more opportunities to meet “locals” while abroad.

There are some common arguments for not going abroad for a year: some say simply that there will be time for that after graduation. I struggled with this, among other counter-arguments, like the repercussions of having to stay in touch with friends at the U of C via e-mail for an entire year. Transferring credit to one’s major also takes a bit of extra foresight and paperwork. There’s also the consideration of attending a relatively expansive public university while paying University of Chicago tuition, something I grappled with while there. But the benefits of engaging in a world-class foreign city for a year clearly outweigh these points of contention. There are two ways one can plan ahead to make things easier: first, finish core requirements before your third year. Secondly, speak with the department head in your major before leaving to clarify credit transfer questions.

Yes, going on a year abroad is not a decision to be taken lightly. But for the seemingly daunting disadvantages, the benefits of living outside the country are multi-faceted and vary for each person. Going abroad for a year allows you to create foundations for a future in that place. The programs in Bologna, St. Petersburg, Kyoto, Berlin, Paris, Ireland, England and Scotland not only introduce you to new cultures and people, but they also expose you to a different understanding of university study that adds value to your time at the U of C when you return.

— Melissa Weihmayer is a fourth-year in the College majoring in anthropology and Germanic Studies.