The phrase "junior year abroad" is a cliche in the world of higher education. The popularity of studying abroad is obvious, and many consider a semester in foreign language and cultural immersion to be a fundamental part of any complete college experience. Yet, according to a Herald article ("Study abroad participation drops," Nov. 14, 2011), the 2010-11 academic year saw the lowest study abroad participation from Brown students in 10 years.
I'm an advocate for studying abroad. My semester in Russia was both the most challenging and most rewarding - and coldest - experience of my life. So the large number of my peers who choose to remain at Brown throughout their undergraduate careers discourages me. I've found that their reasoning is often anxiety-based. Brown students worry about missing courses, unintentionally locking themselves into an inflexible schedule or - worst case scenario - not completing a concentration within four years. And that's not all. Many don't want to leave their friends when time together already feels too brief. It's true that by junior year, most of us are already halfway through our brief college experience.
I had these same hang-ups. So I took a different route altogether and studied abroad as a sophomore. It was the best decision I could have made. But I almost didn't make it.
The whole "junior year abroad" concept is so set in stone that few consider going at any other time. Most simply choose between the fall and spring of junior year. The idea certainly wasn't on my radar. Since I took second year Russian as a freshman, a professor advised me that complete language immersion would be beneficial sooner rather than later. Initially, I disregarded her advice. Who ever heard of a sophomore year abroad? Why would I want to leave campus before choosing a concentration? Why would I want to leave my friends when I had only known them for a year?
Even after I resolved to spend my sophomore spring in Russia, I would continue to face these questions from hoards of concerned friends and relatives. I still do. Here's what I tell them:
Studying overseas is proven to teach students independence, resourcefulness and self-sufficiency. It's a great way to "find yourself" outside of your normal relationships and routines. Admittedly, I was feeling a little lost when I considered the future. Even throughout my fall semester as a sophomore, I had no idea what to concentrate in and even less of an idea of what to do with my life. Going abroad before junior year gave me perspective, strength and a new environment in which to discover more about myself.
We've all heard of the sophomore slump - when far too many second semester sophomores lose motivation and coast until summer. But if you go abroad during those months, you trade a semester of sloth for a semester rich with experience. Because of my decision, I never had a sophomore slump, yet I'm still excited and invigorated for my junior year back at Brown. It's a win-win.
What's perhaps the best reason to go abroad as a sophomore? It's how much time you still have left in college after your overseas studies have ended. You return to Brown with four semesters to go. That's four semesters for friends and four semesters to complete concentration requirements. This clears up many of the nagging logistical and personal issues that make studying abroad unappealing in the first place. You'll probably even have the flexibility to take more electives. Better still, the four remaining semesters are the best semesters of college. It's easier to get good housing as a junior or senior and to secure spots in popular courses.
If you've decided not to study abroad - or you haven't thought about it at all - then I want you to view this article as a wake-up call. Every Brown student should seriously consider a semester away. There are many resources on campus to find out more. The Office of International Programs holds information sessions regularly in addition to its fall study abroad fair.
Remember: College is for more than classes and books. So push yourself. Challenge yourself. Go abroad. And if you consider going abroad as a sophomore, I promise you'll find fewer and fewer reasons not to.
Maggie Tennis '14 is still trying to warm up after returning from Russia. She can be reached at