Last year, I spontaneously decided to study abroad in Argentina. Three weeks before the deadline, I found out that I was eligible and signed up without telling my parents. I spent the next semester trying to convince them that it wasn’t a decrepit third world country, and that I shouldn’t go to China just because its government has a lot of money. As I explained the decision to my friends and classmates, I kept coming across the same three reactions that didn’t make sense.
First, everyone who studied abroad raved to me about how it was so life changing and that I should absolutely do it. Then, almost everyone else who hadn’t studied abroad said they really wanted to and seemed jealous that I would have this chance. Yet strangely, none of these envious peers were willing to seriously consider the option. In fact, only a tiny fraction of Yale students study abroad during the school year.
The most interesting conclusion I drew from my rigorously non-scientific survey is that all the Yale students I talked to kept giving me the same three reasons against studying abroad.
Many justify not going abroad by saying they would do it over the summer. But eight weeks is not enough time to understand what gives a country its identity or makes its people different. It’s not enough time to empathize with the daily challenges that the people of that country face. When you spend all your time speaking in English and hanging out with Yale students, you don’t ever need to figure out what it takes to be a native or what part of your outfit screams America.
In fact, I would say that it takes at least eight weeks to get out of the honeymoon and tourist period, to start experiencing the country as a local. It takes at least eight weeks to figure out the public bus system in any major city. And you cannot appreciate a city by driving around in cabs.
Students also avoid studying abroad because of academic requirements. This can be carefully navigated based on the program you choose and the major that you have. You can often transfer credits towards your major and your distributional requirements (if you’re pre-med, good luck).
There’s a misconception that the caliber of education at other universities does not compare to that offered at Yale. While Yale classes are certainly rigorous and Yale professors spectacular, I have to say that the best economics course I have ever taken was my Argentine Economic History class at la Universidad Torcuato di Tella. If you are daunted by the prospect of taking courses in another language, don’t worry. In other countries people are more lenient with foreigners and your grades won’t be factored into your GPA.
Finally, the most common excuse is “I don’t want to miss out on a semester at Yale.” Students worry that if they leave Yale for just a semester, all of their friends will leave them and they won’t recognize anyone at Bass Café anymore. They don’t want to miss out on a semester of “the best four years of our lives,” chicken tender days and of course those really awkward moments when you walk by somebody and you don’t know whether you should pretend to recognize them or not.
But the idea that whatever happens at Yale is more thrilling and provocative than a semester out in the world is kind of narrow-minded. Do you know what it feels like to spend three hours eating dinner without constantly having to check your iPhone for emails? Have you even had time to eat lunch today?
Your friends will still like you even if you leave for a semester. Personally, after I returned I ended up becoming a lot closer to the people who meant the most to me. I realized how much time I devoted to unfulfilling activities and random 20-minute lunches crammed between meetings. Your time abroad is so formative that you have a renewed energy and sense of purpose that allows you to appreciate Yale upon returning, without burning out.
Coming back, the hardest part is knowing that so many Yalies will never even know how much they are missing.
Jungwon Byun is a junior in Berkeley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.