After winter break, Marisa Reisman ’08 will return to campus in January along with the rest of the Yale student body. But unlike most of her peers, she will not be shopping for classes.
Instead, she said, she plans to spend several weeks tying up loose ends for her many extracurricular activities before she leaves for China at the end of February to participate in the Yale Joint Undergraduate Program in Beijing. Reisman said she needs the extra time at Yale to be able to go abroad at all.
“I was so close to not going until I finally looked into everything I do and I was like, ‘This is not impossible,’” she said. “There’s so much people want to do when they’re at Yale that in eight semesters it’s really hard to find one to break away for.”
The percentage of students at Yale who spend a semester overseas still lags far behind many peer institutions, such as Brown and Dartmouth, despite a push in the last several years by University administrators to encourage Yale students to consider spending time overseas. Although the number of Yalies studying abroad during the academic year has grown by 32 percent since 2000 and — according to a study released Monday — more American students in general are studying in other countries, the vast majority of Yale students still spend all four years on campus.
According to the International Education and Fellowship Programs Office, about eight percent of Yale undergraduates spent a semester abroad in the 2005-2006 academic year. About 35 percent of Brown students and 39 percent of Dartmouth students go abroad at some point during their undergraduate years.
Many Yale students said the low proportion of students choosing to spend a semester abroad is due more to the widely-held opinion that leaving Yale is not worth the sacrifice rather than any lack of study abroad opportunities.
Jane Edwards, associate dean for international affairs, said she thinks study abroad is a central part of a college education and does not agree with the widespread attitude that students can get everything they need by staying in New Haven. She said summer programs, which many Yalies choose as an alternative to spending a semester abroad, do not provide the full depth of the study abroad experience.
“I think all of us are delighted that people are so happy at Yale, but I think what most of us feel is that it’s important that students understand that it’s essential to be able to have an experience abroad of duration,” she said. “Duration is important because it allows you to have a deep knowledge of the culture.”
Edwards said it should be the responsibility of the IEFP to encourage more students to go overseas during the academic year. She said she recognizes that the decision to go abroad requires a “fairly big psychological effort” from students — especially when few of their friends are going — and that more support from administration and faculty is important if more students are to go overseas.
Although many Yalies cited academic concerns as a primary factor deterring them from leaving Yale for the semester, most said extracurricular activities are another important consideration that keeps them on campus. Students said they feel committed to their on-campus groups and organizations, and many said they worried that studying abroad would mean giving up leadership positions.
Beth Fiedorek ’08 said she accepted that she would not go abroad when she decided to run for captain of the ski team this year, but she is willing to make the sacrifice. She said many of her friends share the idea that there are too many opportunities at Yale to leave for an entire semester.
“[Study abroad] is an experience that would be really amazing and wonderful, but the experience at Yale is also really amazing and wonderful,” she said. “I think that for me there are times that I’m going to be able to go abroad that don’t require me to spend one of my semesters here abroad.”
David Leipziger, a sophomore at Brown University, said he does not think many Brown students share Yalies’ idea that leaving their school for a semester requires too great a sacrifice. He is a member of the a cappella group The Brown Derbies, but he said he is not concerned that his involvement will suffer when he goes abroad next year. In general, he said, people do not see participation in extracurricular activities as an obstacle to studying abroad.
Leipziger also said he thinks part of the reason Brown students go abroad in such large numbers is the type of student the school attracts.
“The University just really encourages people to follow their own path and do something unique with their academic experience, so that idea really manifests itself in studying abroad,” he said. “People come to Brown knowing there’s that sort of standard here.”
Tap Night for secret societies, which takes place during the second semester of junior year — traditionally the most popular semester for study abroad — is another factor that several Yalies said keeps them on campus. Although the Frequently Asked Questions section of the IEFP study abroad Web site reassures students that they can be tapped from afar, and some students who are planning on being away during tap season said they are glad to be missing out on the drama, many Yalies said they had heard that being abroad could lower their chances for membership in an exclusive society.
The decision by Yale administrators to open study abroad to sophomores is part of an effort to alleviate the concern that going abroad junior year cuts into extracurricular and social life. Katie Zimmerman ’09, who will participate in a program next semester at the American University in Cairo, said she chose to go abroad in her sophomore year because she wanted to be on campus for her junior year.
But others said the mind-set that keeps Yale students on campus will not change easily or quickly, and some see the relatively low numbers of Yalies who go abroad during the school year as a self-perpetuating phenomenon. Reisman said she thinks students would be more open to the idea of spending time away from Yale if they knew their friends would also be gone and that a “culture of going abroad” needs to develop before it becomes a popular option. Part of what made her decision to go to China difficult, she said, was knowing she would be leaving her friends behind.
“Everything goes on,” she said. “It’s not as if a lot of my friends are going, so I’m essentially opting out of my own social scene here. It’s definitely a trade-off.”
The trade-off involved in going abroad is still one most Yale students are unwilling to make. Kate O’Brien ’07, who spent last semester studying in Santiago, Chile, said part of the reason she thinks relatively few students go abroad during the academic year is a lack of administrative support, but she said she had also noticed a widespread “Yale-is-all-I-need kind of feeling” that keeps students close to home.
“Whenever I talk to people about going abroad, they always say, ‘Oh, I couldn’t,’ ” she said. “Personally I think that’s a really stupid answer, but maybe that’s just sort of the Yalie mentality.”