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Carter '12: Faulty reasons for not studying abroad

According to an article in Tuesday's Herald ("Study abroad participation drops," Nov. 15), the number of students who studied abroad in the 2010-2011 academic year was the lowest in a decade and represented a 7.4 percent decrease from the previous year. Though 414 students studied abroad last year in University programs, that number includes students from other colleges and universities who chose a Brown program for their experience in a foreign country.


Maybe 414 students taking advantage of the opportunity to study abroad is good enough. Kendall Brostuen, the director of the Office of International Programs, said in the Herald piece that Brown continues to rank high among its peer institutions in terms of the percentage of students who study abroad. But matters of rank aside, there must be a reason for the decline in number of students who choose to study abroad.


The article suggests that the financial downturn might be responsible. While I do not mean to suggest that financial reasons will never play a role in making a decision about studying abroad, there are a couple things worth remembering. First, when studying abroad for academic credit, a student still has to pay Brown tuition. So there's no inherent increase in that respect, and, according to the website of the Office of International Programs, "all students eligible for financial aid (with few exceptions) may use their aid for an approved program of study abroad."


Second, while there are room and board costs — not to mention travel expenses — there's no guarantee that they'll be more expensive than a given semester at Brown. For the same reasons that going off meal plan and living off-campus can prove cheaper than Brown's on-campus alternatives, one could find cheaper options in another country. The inability to work legally in most countries where students study abroad is obviously an added difficulty, but perhaps the lost income can be made up in the summer. And if not, there's always the possibility of embracing a truly bohemian lifestyle and living, a la Orwell, "down and out" in Paris and London.


The article also points out a troubling reason for not studying abroad unrelated to the financial downturn. One student, who didn't seem to express any financial worries, said, "This is your only college experience. I don't want to give up an entire semester. … I can go abroad at any time." This chain of reasoning is confused.


Going abroad does not mean abandoning the college experience. In most cases, if not all, students who study abroad — and it should be evident from the label we give the experience — are just having a college experience in another location, at another institution. If anything, it adds another dimension to the college experience by offering insight into how another institution and another country approaches higher education.  


If the idea of "giving up" an entire semester is a concern — and we have to assume that we're talking about giving up a semester here at Brown — one only has to view time abroad as a break from Brown, a chance to step back and find out what we appreciate most about our time at the University. And if we look at "giving up" in terms of missed opportunities for coursework at Brown, let's remember that we have no core curriculum, which means that the only requirements are those imposed by our concentrations. No matter how onerous these requirements may seem, no concentration is so demanding that it prevents studying abroad, even though it might limit one's choice of programs.


It would be foolish to deny that one can go abroad at any time. But it's equally foolish to think that going abroad as a tourist is the same as studying abroad. The reasons are too numerous to list here, but just think about how differently one sees Rhode Island as a visitor — or even as a newly-arrived first-year — than as a seasoned resident of College Hill.  


But let's say that the idea is actually living abroad at any time. Given the difficulties and byzantine bureaucratic processes associated with finding legal employment abroad, it's unlikely that it will ever be as easy — and almost never easier — to live abroad than when you are a student with few day-to-day worries. Being a student abroad also means easy access to university communities, which are frequently vibrant both culturally and socially. There is no guarantee that finding similar opportunities while living abroad after college will be as effortless.


There are certainly good reasons to not study abroad, but it's important to be wary of letting faulty reasons steer you away from spending a few months, or even a year, outside the country. A truly similar opportunity might never again present itself.  


Sam Carter '12 studied abroad in Barcelona but is in no way affiliated with the OIP. He can be reached at



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