Yalies adapt to immersion abroad

The first time someone mistook her for an Argentinian, Natalia Mann ’09 was thrilled.

“Someone heard me speaking Spanish and, because the Buenos Aires accent is so distinctive, they assumed I must have been from around there,” Mann said. “I felt so local.”

Mann’s assimilation to local culture during her semester in Buenos Aires is something many students strive for during their time abroad. Students and faculty alike emphasize the immersion aspect of study abroad as the main benefit of leaving campus for a semester or even a year. But different study abroad programs afford students different types of immersion experiences, ranging from the academic to the cultural to the linguistic. Two of the most popular study abroad options for Yalies — Oxford and Cambridge in England and Buenos Aires in Argentina — each boast highly unique opportunities for immersion, depending on what students are seeking to get out of their time away from Yale.

Not your average lecture class

While studying abroad in England does not necessitate familiarity with a foreign language, studying at Oxford or Cambridge can serve as an immersion experience for those students seeking to absorb a different kind of academic culture. With their distinctive college systems, tutorial style of education and centuries of history, Oxford and Cambridge — or Oxbridge, as they are jointly referred to — expose Yalies to a unique campus culture and style of learning.

Sarah Vanderbilt ’08 spent the spring semester of her junior year studying at Pembroke College, Cambridge through Butler University’s Institute for Study Abroad. But since Oxford and Cambridge are both on trimester systems, she spent two trimesters there — Lent and Easter terms, as they’re called at Cambridge. Vanderbilt said it was difficult to integrate into British college life at first, but that eventually it became impossible not to.

“Socially speaking, it’s hard showing up anywhere mid-year,” she said. “Living immersed with other British kids definitely helped. We weren’t just our own little American colony. We integrated pretty well into college life.”

Yale Director of Study Abroad Karyn Jones said Oxford and Cambridge in particular do a great job of ensuring that students integrate into the campus culture from the beginning, whether they are applying directly to the university for admission or participating in study abroad via a third-party program.

“If you are on a program, you’ll have your own orientation the first couple of days with some other Americans, but once you get on Oxford’s campus or Cambridge’s campus, you’re an Oxford student or a Cambridge student just like everyone else there,” Jones said.

Yale Associate Dean for International Affairs Jane Edwards, who has spent significant time observing programs in Oxford and Cambridge, said social immersion — in which Yalies become regular students at the institution where they are studying — is one of the most important features of study abroad.

A lot of that immersion takes place within tutorials. At Oxbridge, students don’t talk about “studying” subjects like philosophy or chemistry — they say they “read” a subject, and with good reason. The tutorial system at Oxbridge is renowned for its emphasis on one-on-one learning between a professor and a student, who meet only once a week. For the rest of the week, students are assigned an enormous amount of reading — usually 15 or 20 books, according to one student — about which they write a 10-page paper to be presented and discussed with the professor at tutorial the next week.

While some tutorials actually include two or three students, Edwards said the ability to engage with a professor in such an intimate intellectual environment makes the tutorial system attractive to Yale students.

“The British system is not about the liberal arts,” Edwards said. “That’s not what you do at all — you’re accepted for a [specific] program of study. What you’re going to be doing is tutorial work in fields in which you have a good background.”

Kyle Le Croy ’08, who spent a year at Worcester College, Oxford, said Oxford’s academics were a challenge for him even after two years at Yale.

“Oxford is boot camp for writers,” Le Croy said in an e-mail. “Each week the tutors, or dons — a medieval relic from the Latin ‘dominus’ — assign students one research question and expect a well-researched, broadly read, clear and concise paper. Students learn to ask the right questions and read beyond the sources to demonstrate lateral, critical and original thought. And Oxford tutors aren’t known for their gentle delivery of criticism.”

Le Croy said he felt that his academic experience at Oxford was almost on par with a graduate degree in terms of the subject specialization and the amount of research required on a weekly basis. He read two subjects per term and said the reading for his classes required him to spend an average of nine hours per day in the library.

But the academic intensity at Oxbridge enables students to develop a close and meaningful relationship with faculty. Le Croy says he is still in touch with several of his Oxford tutors and has had classmates from his tutorials visit him back at Yale.

Vanderbilt, who read the Expansion of Europe in her first term and Toqueville’s “Democracy in America” in her second term, said the structure of the tutorials and the fact that she was only taking one per semester allowed her to delve carefully into the content of the course.

“It’s just an example of how sometimes having less work means you get more out of what you’re doing,” Vanderbilt said. “You get to read the text over two or three times and really think about it.”

Less time in class also means more time for students to engage in the unique social culture at Oxbridge. Places like the local pub, the football pitch or formal hall — a second dinner served in the college hall that requires formalwear and includes three courses plus wine — are the hub of the Oxbridge social scene.

“After an intense day, English culture politely encourages a trip to the local pub, where the real social scene at Oxford comes to life — not infrequently in pubs older than Columbus himself,” Le Croy said in an e-mail.

Vanderbilt said she liked to spend her free time playing croquet in the late afternoon before heading to formal hall with friends.

“It’s very festive,” she said. “Pubs and bars tend to close early around 11, so everybody starts drinking early with dinner. Plus formal hall is college-based, so you tend to invite friends from other colleges.”

One reason formal halls are so popular is that they are one of the few opportunities foreign students have to meet students from other colleges and expand their social networks. While Yale may have taken the Oxbridge college system as the model for its residential colleges, social circles at Oxbridge tend to be restricted to the college students attend.

Vanderbilt said extracurricular activities such as clubs and varsity sports are important ways to break through the college boundaries and meet students from outside one’s own college.

“Every college has its own faculty, its own grad students, its own libraries and chapels and athletic field space,” she said. “Outside the college, it’s tough. It can be really hard to meet people unless you go out of your way or through friends of friends.”

But Jones said students who study at Oxford or Cambridge seemingly cannot help getting involved with on-campus organizations.

“They’re all still joining things and getting involved,” she said. “We have students in choirs and debating societies and political unions and on the rowing teams.”

Ultimately, students said, they found the Oxbridge scene and its blurring of academic and social culture to be the most distinctive part of their study abroad experience. Le Croy said he considers his experience at Oxford to have been immersive both academically and culturally.

“Other universities offer language study, but Yale encourages the greater step of cultural immersion,” Le Croy said in an e-mail. “England speaks English, and though the words that Oxford tutors and students may use to describe their ideas are in our common language, those ideas are often quite different.”

A different kind of big city

Adding language into the mix can be daunting for students, but it is just that challenge that motivates many Yalies to head abroad.

Mann said her first conversations with Jones about studying abroad focused on Spanish language immersion, and that Jones highly recommended studying in Argentina through one of Butler University’s programs.

According to Jones, Buenos Aires has been one of the most popular destinations among Yalies for years, and Butler has been the most popular facilitator of study abroad experiences there.

“Big cities get the Yale students largely,” she said. “The Butler program is a sort of hybrid of other study abroad programs in that students have to take a language course but they can also pick and choose up to four or five other elective courses as well. Most students will still take something within their major, but there are other students who think, ‘I’m in Argentina, I want to study Argentine literature even though I’m a history major,’ so you’re getting a cultural immersion in class as well.”

While the academic framework in Buenos Aires is similar to Yale’s in that students attend lectures and classes, students said the atmosphere at their Argentine universities was completely unlike any they had experienced in the United States. For one thing, students in the Butler program are permitted to shop around for classes among several institutions in Buenos Aires, including Universidad de Buenos Aires, Universidad Catolica Argentina, Universidad del Salvador and Universidad Torcuato di Tella.

Mann, who took most of her classes at UBA, said life as a student at Buenos Aires’ leading public university was an entirely different experience from life at Yale.

“It’s public, so it’s completely disorganized. There’s a huge bureaucracy — it’s just unbelievable,” Mann said. “And it’s a more overtly political environment. There’d be posters all over the buildings telling you about rallies, elections, who to vote for. And it was totally normal for professors to go on strike. You’d get e-mails saying ‘The faculty will be on strike tomorrow so lecture is cancelled — just keep doing the reading.’”

While students described the academics as high in quality, they said it was eye-opening to see the way some of the classes were run. Mann said about half the desks in any given classroom were broken, and it was wholly acceptable for students to smoke in class.

Zena Bibler ’08, who attended the Butler program the same semester as Mann, took classes at three different universities in Buenos Aires in addition to a required Spanish language class. She compared her experience to taking one class at Yale, one at Connecticut College and another at UConn.

“It was definitely a hectic shopping period, but I ended up with a more diverse schedule,” Bibler said of her classes. “You end up running all across the city — and it’s a very big city.”

In contrast to some of its competitors in Buenos Aires, Butler’s program requires that all participating students stay with a host family while abroad. To ensure that the home-stay provides students with the opportunity to fully immerse themselves in a Spanish-speaking environment, Butler requires that participating host families commit to speaking exclusively Spanish in the home and agree not to have other English-speakers in the house.

“It was such a vital component of the experience to be able to practice my Spanish,” Mann said. “The home-stay is optional for some other programs, but with Butler there is no other option.”

Mann said most of the students in her program were placed with host families living fairly close together in a central part of the city. She said her host family’s location in Buenos Aires’ Recoleta neighborhood — near the cemetery where Eva Peron is buried — gave her a chance to explore some of the city’s major historical sites.

But other students on the Butler program said they had difficulties with the home-stay experience. Bibler switched host families in the middle of her semester in Buenos Aires, though she nevertheless said the home-stay component of the program was an important learning experience.

“It’s a great experience overall to do a home-stay,” Bibler said. “But I personally felt that some of the home-stays were really more about the extra income than providing students with a home-stay experience.”

Bibler said she was originally placed in a home-stay with a woman with whom she got along with as a friend and host-mother. But over time, she found the woman increasingly difficult to live with. She said her host-mother placed her in a smaller room than the one she had shown the program directors, complained about the extra expense of buying soy milk for Bibler — who is lactose intolerant — and violated program rules by renting another room to a student from California. Eventually, Bibler said, the situation became too much to bear and she switched host families, but stayed friends with her first host-mother after moving out.

Her second host family was a much better fit, Bibler said. Her new home was in the neighborhood of Palermo — which she says was much safer — and the family she was living with had been hosting foreign students in their home for years.

“I went from living with this depressed 63-year-old divorcee to living with this family that had another daughter around my age and accepted me as a second daughter,” she said.

Despite the challenges she encountered in her home-stay, Bibler said, her host family provided her with a support network in Buenos Aires and introduced her to other local Argentines, giving her a social immersion experience.

Overall, students felt the home-stay experience was beneficial, if only because it allowed them to develop their language abilities in a foreign environment. Bibler, for her part, is now almost fluent in Spanish.

“Whether or not to do a home-stay depends on why you’re studying abroad,” she said. “For me, Spanish was obviously a big reason. If you’re living with Spanish-speakers and constantly talking to other people in Spanish, you’ll get better. It’s kind of a no-brainer.”

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