Originally published in the Daily Princetonian on 16 December 2011.
The semester has finally ended, and my decision to study abroad in the fall is bearing many rewards — not the least of which is a two-month long winter break. In retrospect, I’m glad that I made that decision.
Studying abroad allowed me to take classes on subject matter that I couldn’t have studied at Princeton in my position, including a computer animation class that we don’t offer at the moment. I was able to take an ethnomusicology course that I couldn’t take at Princeton as an undergraduate and am now considering graduate options in music that seemed impossible three months ago. I made new friends — students from Princeton that I traveled with, as well as students in England that I’ll keep in touch with. Oxford’s tutorial system and its one-on-one attention helped me find a mentor in one of my professors.
But the decision to study abroad still wasn’t easy. So for freshmen, or sophomores, or others still who have the option to study abroad, here are a few recollections that might help contextualize that decision.
The Office of International Programs’ Guide to International Programs calls a semester abroad a “critical complement” to your time at Princeton. Study abroad offers the opportunity to engage with international issues and broaden your intellectual capability. Even though I traveled to an English-speaking country and didn’t learn a new language, I still found great academic opportunities in a different cultural and academic tradition.
I got a chance to engage with a radically different education system, allowing me to look at our system at Princeton more critically. One of our professors, for example, always criticized the American system’s emphasis on original thought in a student’s writing. “No one cares what you think,” he said, “and no one cares what I think.” It allowed me to look at some of my own academic work in more realistic terms; often, the insertion of my own opinions was just an assessment technique and not really a pure furthering of academic thought.
Going to England was also a nice break from Princeton’s cutthroat stress, the race to find a career and the constant feeling of being surrounded by amazing and talented friends who seem to have already figured it out. I feel our minds are forced to think in new ways when we’re in new settings. As we learn to adapt and accept different social norms, our minds take different intellectual paths, too. A semester away from Princeton got me out of the intellectual rut of not being able to find an internship and gave me some ideas for a way forward after graduation.
Of course, this divergence from a regular Princeton class schedule makes it difficult to fulfill departmental requirements, especially for students pursuing certificates. Luckily, I was able to go to a program sponsored by the Wilson School — my certificate program — while the computer science department — my major — was flexible in its own requirements. It’s also worth mentioning the engineering department’s opinion that certificates don’t matter in the end in its FAQ for study abroad: “It will be clear to anyone reading your transcript that you have done significant work in that area, even if you don’t get the certificate.” I was actually in a position where it was my major that I wouldn’t be getting, so I think I might have been pushing it a little. But it’s nice to know the freedom exists.
There are other aspects to deciding to go abroad as well. We are only at Princeton for eight semesters, and the prospect of losing one or two, especially if you value the Princeton community, is definitely worth considering. The engineering department’s FAQ is a bit dismissive of this concern, too. It says, “Many of your friends will probably come to visit you when you’re abroad and wish they took the opportunity themselves. With email and Facebook you certainly won’t be out of touch, and if you keep a blog while you’re away, your friends will know what you’re doing all the time.”
This I find harder to buy. Yes, you keep in touch with friends, but it’s a fundamentally different experience. I think realizing it will be different before you make the decision is important. The blog never seems to work out, and there’s only so much friends will say over wall posts. Keeping up with viral videos, however, will not be a problem; procrastination is a transnational concern.
Ultimately, Princeton has a dedicated staff working to get you to leave this place and have a satisfying experience wherever you go. As Dean Bogucki said poignantly in one of his emails, “Please go away.”