Study Abroad, Worth the Risk?
There is no denying that the Claremont Colleges place a high value on study abroad; as far as the percentage of students sent abroad are concerned, Pomona (52%), Pitzer (66%), Scripps (60%), Claremont McKenna (44%), and Harvey Mudd (16%) all boast impressive numbers, emphasizing both the practical and theoretical importance of cultural immersion. The numbers are even more impressive when you compare them to the national average, which according to the Association of International Educators is less than 2%. Examining each Claremont College’s unique educational philosophies and study abroad programs available, there appears to be an excellent variety of study abroad options. However, even with the high rates of students going abroad and the often reputable programs, study abroad at the Claremont Colleges is far from perfect.
A college institution’s educational philosophies are usually indicative of its institutional “personality,” and the Claremont Colleges do not disappoint. As the largest college on the 5Cs, Pomona leads the pack with over 49 programs in 31 different countries. According to the Pomona website, “The Program for Education Abroad seeks to maximize the benefits of living temporarily in a non-American milieu… to generate both intellectual and personal sensitivity to the variations of life, culture, and scholarship in the world, and thus contribute to responsible citizenship in human affairs.” Known for its championing of a liberal arts education, Pomona’s study abroad philosophy is reflected in the pure number of cultural programs it offers. This dedication to international education it is why students from all 5Cs trek to Mason or Oldenburg Halls for Chinese, French, Japanese, German, Russian and Spanish classes.
Pitzer’s educational philosophy similarly emphasizes the importance of intercultural understanding and views study abroad as an excellent way to accomplish this goal. The program’s uniqueness comes from what Pitzer’s Office of Study Abroad deems its commitment to “cultural immersion and sustained engagement in local communities.” Corresponding with Pitzer students’ reputation of demonstrating the most activism out of the 5Cs, those studying abroad are expected not only to learn about the world around them, but also to turn that knowledge into action to benefit communities for future generations.
Scripps emphasizes seven key reasons for including study abroad in the course of study: to expand worldviews, to gain an insider perspective on another culture, the opportunity to view your own culture from a different perspective, intensive language study, exposure to varying academic perspectives, leaving your comfort zone, and internship/career opportunities. Scripps also states that “participation in study abroad and domestic exchange programs fosters the goals eloquently prescribed by Ellen Browning Scripps,” reaffirming the programs’ relevance to education.
Although not required, Pitzer, Pomona and Scripps generally stress that students go abroad during their junior year. Claremont McKenna takes a different view, encouraging students to study abroad spring semester of sophomore year, which their website says will “[allow] them to spend a full two years in upper-level courses and [have] discourse with faculty at a more in-depth and sophisticated level.” The stated mission of CMC study abroad “is to connect students to off-campus academic and cultural immersion experiences that support their personal, professional, and intellectual development in a globalized world.” Both of these statements support the highly pragmatic and professional activities that CMC encourages its students to undertake, both on and off campus.
Though Harvey Mudd students must complete a two-year core program before going abroad, making junior year their only option, they are still encouraged “to see the world as their campus and gain a borderless education,” according to their Study Abroad Program. Despite their legacy as a college for science, mathematics and engineering, Harvey Mudd maintains its dedication to “provide its students with a rich background in the humanities and social sciences.”
Even as study abroad remains popular among the Claremont Colleges, some students say that academic rigor makes it difficult to take a semester away from campus. This makes the most sense at Harvey Mudd, where according to Ray Hurwitz (HM ’14), it simply was not feasible for him or other students to go abroad while completing the graduation requirements for engineering. In theory, Mudd administration is supportive of study abroad, but the bar for course approval is so high that many Mudd students cannot participate. Although Mudd has a numerous pre-approved programs, all classes taken abroad must also be individually approved by department chairs. For the most part, the rest of the 5Cs have less severe guidelines.
For Hurwitz, there was a lot of excitement sophomore year as he went about preparing potential courses of study. But once it came down to presenting their plans, the responses from department chairs were discouraging; some classes could only count towards half a Mudd credit, while others would not count at all. In the end, he observed “only a handful” of his peers going abroad.
When compared to the relative ease of studying abroad at the rest of the 5Cs, Mudd’s policies seem discouraging.
“It’s not that Mudd is against it, but they’re trying to make you the best engineer you can be. They’re not going to let you take a BS course if they don’t think it’s worth it,” said Hurwitz.
This attitude is mirrored by other Mudd students as well: many students fear that even with department chair approval, taking prerequisite courses while away from Mudd’s campus will put them at a disadvantage in their upper division courses upon return.
In contrast, Pitzer takes international education stateside, bringing those ideas home by offering all of its students, even those who choose not to study abroad an opportunity to interact with foreign students. Through semester and yearlong exchange programs, Pitzer hosts a number of international students. Whereas many international students grew up in either American or British international schools, exchange students come from an array of cultural backgrounds. Pitzer’s exchange program, arguably, extends the benefits of study abroad to a greater amount of students.
Even with the hype, study abroad does not always meet the objectives. Amy Brownstein PZ ‘13 was less than satisfied with her experience last spring in Seville, Spain. As a Spanish major, Brownstein was looking to fully immerse herself in Spanish culture and improve her conversational skills. Hoping to push herself towards fluency, Brownstein chose to study abroad during the opposite semester as her friends, fearing that she would fall into default mode and rely on the comfort of English.
Before her departure, Brownstein made sure that she would be able to take regular classes with Spaniards at the University of Seville. However, upon arrival, she was told that this would not be possible. After a month of appeals, Brownstein was told that she would be allowed to enroll in regular university classes. Unfortunately, the times conflicted with her other courses leaving her unable to enroll.
Still determined to immerse themselves in Spanish culture, Brownstein and her friends attempted to participate in a program, called Intercambios, where foreign students were put in contact with local students via e-mail with the intention of setting up face-to-face meetings in an informal setting. Despite their efforts, Brownstein and her peers were again left dissatisfied; most of their e-mails went unanswered.
In speaking with one of her professors about other avenues to explore to interact with locals, Brownstein was warned against making connections on her own, told by locals, “Night friends are not good friends.”
Ultimately, Brownstein felt that she did not receive the cultural immersion she was promised. She believes that she could have accomplished the more had she simply spent a summer traveling.
While the aims and goals of study abroad are admirable, these goals are not necessarily met in every situation at the Claremont Colleges. Even as each of the schools offers strong study abroad options, the academic programs and requirements can make doing so difficult. Importantly, when intercultural and interdisciplinary exploration is not fostered, the study abroad experience can be a frustrating one. However, when these goals are achieved, study abroad can be an integral part of a student’s education.