Exploring options for off-campus study
As sophomores finish up their preliminary study abroad applications, many students remain undecided on their intended destinations and the types of experiences they hope to have.
Students are considering where and when they will go, what language they want to speak while abroad, how much their trips will cost and which programs will offer the best experience. During this stressful application process, it is important to remember that these huge decisions do not have to be made right now. Nothing submitted to the Office of Off-Campus Study (OCS) on November 15 as part of the preliminary application is set in stone.
Director of Off-Campus Study Nancy Downey says students should "begin meeting with their advisors and at least know which semester they prefer to go abroad, as they are required to specify and academically justify their semester choice by November 15."
Approximately 67 percent of students travel abroad at some point during their tenure on the Hill. For most, it proves to be a life-changing experience.
A vital resource available to help sophomores narrow their list of potential locations and programs is the Student Evaluations of Programs, available on the OCS website. Students can browse through numerous evaluations, and filter results based on various preferences. Through this portal, ambivalent sophomores can access first-hand accounts of students' study abroad experiences, and match the goals of their semester abroad with the experiences of someone who has already been through the process.
Becky Muller '10 went to Stellenbosch, in South Africa, for her semester abroad, and credits it as the "most rewarding and incredible aspect" of her college career. "My biggest piece of advice for students going abroad is to fully understand your own needs before picking your program or location. Study abroad is not for everyone," Muller explains. Muller believes that she was the first Colby student to choose her particular program, Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE), but did not find petitioning OCS for her program to be difficult. "It was extremely easy and, for the most part, OCS tries to accommodate most people into their programs of choice," Muller says.
Some students have a less traditional learning experience while abroad. Megan Browning '10 went to Tanzania, located in central east Africa, last spring with three other students from the College. They were with the School for International Training (SIT) program, which consisted of 18 students from various universities in America. "SIT's whole philosophy is experiential learning. Rather than sitting in a classroom listening to a teacher, we were going out and actually doing it," Browning says. Her semester began with three weeks living in a homestay, where she learned Swahili during the day and applied her language skills in the evenings in order to communicate with her host family.
Browning chose a program that complemented her environmental studies major well--the theme of this particular SIT program was wildlife conservation and ecology. "At the end of the program you do an independent study. You could go anywhere you wanted in Tanzania," Browning recalls, and she appreciated ending her semester abroad on her terms.
Elise Randall '10 studied with the SIT: Arts, Community and Transition program in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, during the fall of her junior year. The experience educated her both academically and culturally. "Central Europe is often overlooked, as it's not as trendy as Africa or the Middle East, but there is so much to be learned living in a post-communist state," Randall says. "My program specifically really put us into Czech culture, from taking intensive Czech lessons to spending a week with artists in Southern Bohemia, to meeting famous dissidents from the Velvet Revolution."
The type of housing available in each individual program helps some students make their final decisions. Muller says, "I was not a fan of homestays, and preferred to live alone with students my age....Living in a dorm in South Africa, I was one of only seven other Americans and I was able to really become ingrained within the university life and programs at the school." Browning's SIT program had a less distinct housing situation. "It was a traveling program. We had different living arrangements throughout the semester. There was a lot of camping....We went on safaris [and to] international parks," Browning says. At one point, the group even resided in traditional huts in the Maasai village, which allowed students to continue improving their Swahili language skills.
Hands-on experience was a vital component of Browning's program. Students can easily integrate other types of interactive experiences, such as internships, into their semester abroad. "There is a misconception on campus that students can't get credit for this. In fact, if the internship requires academic work in tandem with work placement, is non-paid and bears four credits as part of a 16- credit academic program, then students can earn credit," Downey explains. OCS requires students considering internship programs to meet with an OCS advisor because there are "strict guidelines about what types of internship programs are acceptable for credit," Downey says. "Doing an internship abroad is not only a boon for one's resume, but also gives students the opportunity to see what it would be like to live and work abroad."
Many seniors can also attest to the fact that there is more to study abroad than just studying. Muller was able to go "travel camping in Namibia, on a safari at Kruger National Park in South Africa, [on] a road trip up the coast of South Africa on the Garden Route and down the coast to the Southern-most tip of the African continent at Cape Agulhas." In most programs, it is fairly easy to explore individual host countries and even beyond their borders.
The College's three-semester minimum foreign language requirement encourages students to consider studying in a country where English is not the primary language. But the possibility of taking courses in a foreign country and in a foreign language may deter students from choosing this option. Downey hopes that these fears will be assuaged. "Many students worry too much about their language skills when they travel to non-English speaking sites. We counsel them that most cultures are very gracious about this and that it's OK to make mistakes....You have to get out there and speak the language, and it's important to make mistakes in one's effort to gain fluency," Downey says.
Cost plays a large role in determining some students' study abroad plans, but financial situations should not discourage anyone from applying to certain programs. Financial aid is transferrable to all programs that have been approved by OCS, and scholarships are sometimes available to offset further costs. Although some programs may cost more than a semester at Colby, there exist others that cost considerably less than the College's tuition.
The opportunity to study abroad is one truly unique to college-aged students in this generation. According to Browning, students should "definitely go abroad" if they can. "I can't imagine having gone through Colby without it. It just added so much to my world perspective and gave me so much more to think about."