Studying overseas broadens education

Jennifer Thompson ’04 never thought she would have a breakdown over a piece of cheese.

But standing in a market in Moscow, cheese became symbolic of a seemingly insurmountable language barrier. Thompson spoke very little survival Russian. The cheese spoke no English and neither did the man selling it. Terrified and frustrated, Thompson started crying.

A junior on a term abroad, she had chosen to study at the Moscow Art Theater with no formal language training to aid her. Cheese was not her biggest problem at the time, but it sure felt like it.

Three grueling but rewarding months of intensive cultural and language immersion later, Thompson had no problem obtaining cheese.

“Leaving Yale was my best Yale experience,” Thompson said. “It was vital in keeping me happy here at Yale.”

A growing percentage of Yale students are choosing to leave New Haven and study abroad as part of their undergraduate education. And following a recent shift in administrative policy, that number promises to increase even more in the coming years. Traditionally, the Yale ethos emphasized four years in the Elm City, but due to the Spring 2003 academic review, that tradition is on the verge of real change.

When the 41-member committee of Yale ladder faculty led by Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead drafted the report on Yale College Education last April, the issue of study abroad took center stage. The report articulates a significant alteration in Yale College’s official stance on international education. Not only does the academic review call on Yale to expand international opportunities; it labels experience abroad an “integral part” of the Yale education.

“Our hope is to create a climate in which the average Yale student will have spent time in foreign settings and have serious encounters with foreign cultures while they’re still a student,” Brodhead said.

But the path to Brodhead’s vision, as stipulated in the academic review, is hardly clear-cut. Despite a major capital campaign to fund the review’s recommendations, including those concerning study abroad, it remains unclear how exactly that money will be put to use and how successful the changes will be at overcoming the traditional on-campus mentality of most students. While some colleges, such as Stanford University, boast well-established study abroad programs with long histories, Yale is a relative newcomer to the study-abroad trend.

“In some ways, it’s too soon to tell,” said Barbara Rowe, director of the Office of International Education and Fellowship Programs, the main channel of advice and information for students looking into abroad opportunities. “I suspect that the number of fellowships we offer will grow.”

The academic review advises that IEFP and University Career Services expand the number and variety of their international opportunities. As it is, IEFP has only been in operation for four and a half years, but is credited with much of the current growth in study abroad. The number of students participating in Junior Term Abroad increased by 40 percent in 2003, according to the Office of International Education and Fellowship Programs.

In particular, Rowe said new fellowships will likely be modeled after two already successful Yale fellowship programs: the Richard U. Light Fellowship and the Seapine Summer Fellowship, both of which provide funding for Yale professors and instructors to travel to the various program sites to make sure those programs meet Yale requirements.

“When the Dean raises money, we can begin modeling off of these programs,” Rowe said.

Professor Edward Kamens, who was initially involved in the implementation of the Light Fellowship, said he believes financial backing is necessary to change the current campus mentality about study abroad. The Light Fellowship, which sends students to Korea, Japan and China to study language, has been increasing in popularity since its inception in 1996.

“The culture of staying here at Yale is changing,” Kamens said. “I have no doubt that if you add into the factors financial support, I think this makes a huge difference in having students and their parents incorporate [study abroad] into their time at Yale.”

The academic review’s new language requirements, which will be applied beginning with the class of 2009, make the need for expanded abroad opportunities more urgent. The review says that students will be able to receive language credit for completing an approved summer study or internship in a foreign country.

But the push toward study abroad was not greeted with unanimous support by the language departments. Some instructors fear that students will not have sufficient language backgrounds before immersion and that programs will not be worthy of Yale credit.

“There are some departments and some individuals who overtly or covertly discourage students [from study abroad],” said Ruth Koizim, a senior lector in French who advises many students about study abroad. “It is not yet clear that the new requirements will indeed make sure students have the proper foundation.”

Choosing or creating language programs worthy of Yale credit is a difficult and costly task. While the Light and Seapine Fellowships send Yale professors abroad, traditionally, individual departments have been responsible for determining whether a student can receive credit.

Rowe said cooperation among the various committees, offices and departments involved in study abroad will be necessary for the success of the review’s recommendations. She said the IEFP plans to work together with the Committee on Language Study and the individual departments to find language immersion programs the University deems adequate.

Incorporated in the mix of committees and departments, the Center for Language Study also has plans to diversify its programs following the apprehended increase in students studying abroad. Nina Garrett, the director of the Center for Langauge Study, said she would like to see the center become the “back-up support structure” for study abroad. Garrett hopes to create programs that will prepare students for full-speed native speech and cultural immersion.

In spite of all these proposed changes, no one is really sure how successful Yale will be in convincing students to take time away from campus.

Thompson’s roommate, Joy Chia ’04 also left for a junior term abroad. Chia went to Prague, but said she only did so because she had completed her leadership position in her a cappella group during her sophomore year.

“It takes a long time to change student culture,” Rowe acknowledged.

Rowe said she does not think it is necessary to change that culture all at once. Summer programs abroad, which the academic review emphasizes, are one of many ways students can gain experience abroad without sacrificing any of their time at Yale. Yale Summer Programs already offers intensive language programs in Russia, Italy and Germany.

“I don’t know if it’s necessary to change the ethos,” Rowe said. “I think if we send more students abroad over the summer, then maybe they will come back and want to have more time abroad.”

Joy Chia ’04, pictured with her sister in Prague, takes advantage of study-abroad opportunities, which have gained increased attention following 2003’s Report on Yale College Education.
Courtesy JoyChia
Joy Chia ’04, pictured with her sister in Prague, takes advantage of study-abroad opportunities, which have gained increased attention following 2003’s Report on Yale College Education.

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