Should I Stay or Should I Go?

07/13/18

The English punk band the Clash immortalized the ambivalence inherent in the decision-making process with their 1981 tune, “Should I Stay or Should I Go.” And while they weren’t singing about studying abroad (at least we don’t think they were), every student who has thought about packing her bags and studying at a foreign university has asked herself that basic question: should I stay or should I go? 

10 to 20 percent of American undergraduate students decide to spend a summer, a semester, or an academic year overseas, and it is safe to assume that thousands more consider it as a viable option. Like other choices that are made during college (such as “going greek” or picking a major), studying abroad helps to shape one’s personal undergraduate experience.  But this one is a bit different.  It’s not like legions of college students are just casually falling into their abroad programs.  Deciding whether or not to go abroad is a meticulous exercise that involves researching options, meeting with counselors, and assessing and ordering personal priorities. All of which begs the question, “Is it really worth it to pack up my bags for a few months and live in a far-off foreign country?”

I Should Go

For some people, it is a simple decision. Going abroad appeals to students actively seeking that once-in-a-lifetime experience.  Take Mere Rosenbluth (Bard College ’09), who ended up venturing across the Atlantic to The University of Sussex in Great Britain.  Rosenbluth says the abroad experience “was something I wanted to do because I ha[d] never really travelled out of the states. The…opportunity to live in a foreign place and especially mix with foreign students [was] really appealing.”   As a sociology major with a concentration in gender studies, The University of Sussex offered more courses suited to her interests than Bard did. Packing her bags and moving to England for a few months seemed like a no-brainer.   

While the decision is not that easy for every student, Bill Nolting, Director of Overseas Opportunities at The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, observes that there are generally three reasons to study abroad.  Travel-hungry students are interested in (a.) exploring another country, (b.) learning a different culture, and (c.) fulfilling a sense of curiosity.  Even though studying abroad offers an invaluable experience, there are tangible reasons to explain why 80-90% of American undergraduates decide not to go abroad. 

I Should Stay

You don’t have to be diagnosed with a severe case of travel-phobia to opt out of the abroad experience.  There are logical and justifiable reasons to stay in the states.   For example, financial considerations need to be taken into account.  Even though financial aid often carries over to abroad programs, the weak state of the dollar can put a strain on the wallet that might not be worth the headache.  Furthermore, students who are involved with on-campus organizations such as student government, the student newspaper, or Division-I athletics are hard-pressed to find the time to take a semester or two off.  A student who is involved with the newspaper needs to ask him- or herself the question, “would I rather work toward becoming the editor-in-chief or should I sacrifice that opportunity to spend a few months in Abroad-istan?” While going abroad can be a resume- booster in certain situations, it is important to figure out what exactly you’re leaving behind.  There is a reason Shaquille O’Neal never took the time go abroad while he was an undergraduate at Louisiana State University.

In addition to the fear of missing out on extracurricular activities, many students do not want to make academic sacrifices. Nolting explains, “if a student is in a degree program with a tight curriculum, then it is hard for those students to go abroad and graduate in four-years.”  This is part of the reason why Shana Bush (Columbia University ‘09) decided against going to Italy for the spring semester of her junior year. Even though Bush entered college with the assumption that she would spend a semester overseas, she also wanted to have freedom with her course selections during her senior year – a flexibility that is difficult to negotiate alongside Columbia’s strict core curriculum. Bush explains, “If I went abroad, I would only have two semesters left at Columbia, with no freedom in my schedule.”  Moreover, as an American Studies major, Bush was also concerned that the courses abroad would leave her underwhelmed.  Many students who study abroad complain about the inferior quality of academic courses in comparison to what is offered at their home universities.  Thus, it is vital for a student to assess his or her academic needs before entering an abroad program.

I Don’t Know

While all these options might seem overwhelming and a bit confusing, it is comforting to know that most schools have reliable study-abroad centers. Their professional counselors and volunteer students can help a bewildered undergrad explore options, answer questions, and ultimately point him or her in the right direction. However, when it comes down to it, the student is the only one who can answer the key question – should I stay or should I go?

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