While home over break, it seemed as though all my high school friends had either just returned from abroad or were departing soon. Those who returned had made all these new friends and gone to all these exciting places. Those about to leave were choosing destinations for upcoming long-weekend trips, picking between Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore.
I had just come back from New Haven and was planning to return to New Haven. I tried to build up disproportionate excitement for a day trip to Overshores Brewing Co. (it’s in East Haven). “Are you going abroad?” people would ask. “No, not going abroad … I spent last summer in London, so that was sort of my abroad,” I would say. My summer in London had been fun, sure, but disappointing in a number of ways that essentially undermined what I believed to be the function of the abroad experience. Essentially, I left very much the same person as I had been upon arrival, but with a slightly more refined taste in coffee and cocktails.
We know the reasons that people choose to go abroad: adventure, new experiences, new culture, language immersion, the ‘if not now, when?’ argument … etc. Yet so many Yalies, myself included, choose to stay. Why?
Part of it stems from an Ivy-centric elitism: “Why would I give up a semester at Yale? There are so many classes to take, so many opportunities right here.” While I do agree that there’s plenty this University offers to fill four years, the rest of the world must have something to offer our education. I think that it’s not just an attitude, but also a result of the structure of campus life that makes it difficult to leave. Generally, college students go abroad their junior year. Some colleges practically require study abroad so they can have enough housing for their students. At Yale, the residential college system pretty much guarantees everyone a room, so we don’t ever really feel kicked out. It’s comfortable to stay. We’re welcome here.
Logistics play a role beyond our living situations. I don’t know if other schools vary in this pattern, but most organizations at Yale depend on junior leadership — it is difficult to run a club or edit a publication from outside the country. After spending two years committed to a community and rising through its leadership structure, it becomes hard for students to turn around and leave for a destination without commitments.
Frankly, it’s hard for me to imagine a semester like this. In London, with class as my only commitment, the amount of free time I had truly shocked me. But maybe that’s why study abroad works — it gives one the minimal amount of structure to organize a life and then allows one to do almost anything with the free spaces. Maybe it’s not a desire to remain at Yale that keeps us here, but a fear of figuring out what to do with ourselves somewhere else.
As for me, I’ve made my decision; it’s too late for a change of heart and adventures in far-off lands. Perhaps I’ll do a little bit of travel as I’m researching my to-be-determined thesis this summer, but sincere study abroad is off the table. I tell myself that I want to work abroad for a year or two following graduation, but maybe that’s a platitude of a response to my current rootedness. I hope it isn’t. If I haven’t gained a study abroad experience at Yale, I hope that I’ve at least developed the skills that would enable me to plant myself in a foreign country and have enriching and formative experiences beyond the undergraduate timeline.
I shared a cab from Bradley Airport to campus with a Yale Law student and he pointed out the stereotype of risk-averse YLS students, but I think that this stereotype has a broader implication on campus. While risk aversion may have motivated my decision to be here this semester, I hope that I will remember that undergrad is not the only, or even the best, time for adventure. There’s always time and something to study abroad.
Caroline Sydney is a junior in Silliman College. Her column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.