International Programs and the Undergraduate Experience

By Kim Hopewell ’13

From the moment students arrive on campus, they are bombarded with the brochures and pamphlets lauding the benefits of study abroad. Princeton’s Office of International Programs (OIP) praises study abroad for exposing students “to new ways of learning, living, and seeing the world, all of which will challenge your assumptions, hone your academic skills, and prepare you for life…in a global environment”. In fact, OIP has gone as far as to suggest that choosing not to go abroad during your time at Princeton “can put you at a disadvantage academically and professionally.” These claims are not novel; there has been a marked shift in support for international programs in the past decade. As the world becomes increasingly globalized, many have argued that it is becoming more important for students to be able to assimilate, respect, and appreciate other cultures. However, international programs have falsely been presented as a necessary and integral part of an undergraduate experience. While it is a nice option to have, often, there are important considerations students must take into account when deciding whether to study abroad.

Students at Princeton University have a seeming endless line of studying abroad options—whether they want to study a large gravity signal in Australia, research tropical biology in Panama, work at the National Institute of Oceanography in Italy, or study comparative literature at Oxford. Students can choose to spend a semester, bridge year, or summer abroad or take part in an international internship. These international programs have been highly successful at Princeton; OIP reported that “56% of graduating seniors in 2011 participated in at least one structured international activity lasting one month or longer.” The International Internships Program (IIP) sponsored 183 Internships in Summer 2010 in 45 countries. In fact, interest in International Study at Princeton is growing rapidly; IIP saw a 62.5% increase in applications from 2009 to 2010, and application numbers have risen steadily since 2006.

One of the most common reasons students choose to go abroad is that they feel will never get a similar chance. Shyam Modi, who is currently studying in New Delhi, says he is very glad that he chose to study abroad, and explains that he felt it was important to take advantage of the University’s Resources. With Princeton’s extensive set of international programs, students are virtually unlimited in their international studies; the Study Abroad program accepts credit from 44 Universities worldwide, and students even have the option to create their own International Internship Program. In addition, students on financial aid continue to receive financial aid while studying abroad, and all students who participate in an IIP internship are supported by a financial award (either from endowed funds, IIP partner contributions, employers, or external awards), which helps cover the costs of “airfare (if the student is on financial aid), lodging, meals and local transportation.” There is certainly an argument to be made for capitalizing on University resources.

For some students, studying abroad is a way to further their career interests. Modi explains that he plans to start his own company, “potentially right out of college” and that “India is a really exciting place to do business right now.” Modi believed that studying in India would give him exposure to “Indian business environment” and would allow him to make connections.

Many students are looking to escape the orange bubble and be better connected with the global community. Modi also hopes to gain insight into the day-to-day lives of Indians and learn Hindi. Modi explains that a heightened cultural awareness is crucial for anyone hoping to work or live abroad, “For example the common mode of transportation here is the auto rickshaw, and if you talk to the driver in English, he will ask you for a much, much higher fee than if you ask in Hindi.” Gabriel Kustner, who studied in London last semester, also felt that she had gain valuable cultural insight and the benefits of a new perspective.

Others feel that they develop personally. Kustner explains, “going abroad allows one to live and experience the world…and see what life is really about.” Often students are forced to manage a budget for the first time, be responsible for their own affairs, and learn to live without American luxuries. With the opportunities for personal development, direct exposure to other cultures, and career development, it is easy to see why the University so adamantly promotes International Experiences at Princeton.

Yet, for some students the decision to study abroad is not so clear-cut. While international experience provides students a unique opportunity to deeply immerse in another culture and to mature in an environment where they are largely self-reliant, other interests often take precedence over personal development in college.

Students must also consider if is the best decision to take a semester off from academics and extracurriculars at Princeton. Students who choose to study abroad during the year lose valuable time at the University. Modi notes that in some ways IIT, while one of the top schools in India, does not have the same “instructional quality…or student engagement” that we have at Princeton. The University is truly unique; students who go to study abroad will ultimately sacrifice a semester of rigorous academics taught by distinguished faculty. In addition, they must forgo any yearlong leadership position in clubs or groups on campus. Some students may even incur social difficulties; sophomores may miss or be at a disadvantage during bicker week.

Students must also be honest with themselves when designing their Study Abroad Program or International Internship. Not every international experience is equal and not every student is genuinely seeking a formative and valuable experience. Some may simply be looking to take a break from the academic rigor of Princeton, go to class twice a week and spend the rest of their time “culturally immersing” themselves in the bar scene. It is the students’ not OIP’s job to ensure that undergraduates use their time abroad in the most productive manner.

Ultimately, choosing to take part in an International Program will be a unique decision for each student; one that is not quite as black and white as the University makes it out to be. Students should not only consider the exciting sights and places they will see, but they also must also objectively consider if an international experience would further their academic interests or career goals. There are certainly valuable and substantive international programs. For students who need to be on location for Senior Thesis Research or want to be fluent in a foreign language, studying abroad may indeed be a crucial part of their undergraduate studies, but others may need to consider the decision more carefully. The University should discourage the “one size fits all” view of study abroad and be more transparent about possible drawbacks. The International Internship Program may be the most viable alternative to study abroad, as it allows students to pursue a “cultural experience” during their college years without sacrificing academic excellence. While it is nice to have the option to study abroad, students must carefully investigate the tradeoffs.

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