Ought I Have Studied Abroad?

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

And by extension, should you? My answer to both questions is yes, but I’ve been thinking about it these past couple weeks.

Edinburgh has gotten very dark recently. Though on the same latitude as Moscow, the city is moderated by ocean currents, so while it doesn’t get that cold, sunlight is a rare commodity. A friend recently purchased one of those sun lamps, and it might be a worthy long-term investment; getting up in the mornings has, at times, been a challenge.

I miss Swarthmore. The people, the beauty of campus, the classes, Orchestra 2001 concerts, lectures, cheering at the sidelines of soccer games all painted up, movies at LPAC, running through the Crum like a pack of predators: these things are sweet. I definitely have substitutes here, but they’re not quite the same.

So why did I leave? For me, the answer comes down to a few things. First is the chance to travel, the challenge of visiting and living in new cities, and the sense of adventure that accompanies it all. Meeting new people, looking out the windows of trains and seeing cows and oil rigs and men in kilts outside their cottages, getting off planes and trying to navigate, walking unknown streets, seeing what looks like a cool restaurant and thinking “I should go there”: It’s exciting. Things are new. Even if I’m lost and starting to get scared, boarding a subway in a foreign country and not really comprehending the signs, I’m out of my comfort zone, and appreciative of the variety.

Second, and this is particular to the program I’m on, the internship is pretty awesome. Working in Parliament, attending committee meetings with my MSP, campaigning, and doing research that might just play into an actual discussion of public policy are all experiences I wouldn’t have had at Swat. As a result I’ve had a chance to reconsider where I see myself going in life, and new paths seem illuminated.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, I am going to appreciate Swarthmore so, so hard when I get back, and hopefully be less likely to burn out by graduation. Four years is a lot of time to go balls to the wall for classes, as the Cross Country team would say. I don’t know if this is true for kids at the Oxbridge Schools or LSE, but for the rest of us, the amount of academic work done while abroad goes down a lot. Like, 90% decline, like, enough that one friend has watched 4 seasons of the West Wing and I’ve made my way through the Savage Love archives stretching back to 1999. It’s a nice contrast, and I imagine recharging will help us get through to the end. If Swarthmore sometimes feels like an epic track workout, 8X1 semester at academic threshold pace, doing this fifth rep (semester) at a much lower intensity hopefully means we can maintain a solid effort for the last three without fatiguing. I’d like to finish college feeling comfortable, tired, but not about to collapse, if that makes any sense. Studying abroad, for that reason, is a very valuable change of pace.

Sunlight and smiles in Barcelona.

Having said all this about why I appreciate leaving Swarthmore, it’s still really nice to wrap some of it up as take-out. This past weekend, we had a class of 2010 reunion in Barcelona, starring Katie Becker from Grenoble, Carey Pietsch and myself from Edinburgh, Johanna Bond from Trinity College Dublin, Cecelia Ososwki, Emma Parker (hailing from Sweet Briar College), Andrew VanBuren from the Northern Ireland Derry program, and Claire Shelden from Prague. We explored the vibrant city, basked in the warm sunlight (not exactly Jamaica but a big step up from Northern UK), and, I have to admit, did a fair bit of commiserating about missing school. It was good to know I wasn’t alone. Others, too, miss the friends and the campus, and, what to do you know, generally prefer Swatties to the bros who often inhabit study abroad programs in Europe. We had a late dinner and, as LCD Soundsystem says, partied “like in Spain where they go all night!” It was a wonderful weekend, and a reminder that right now, I have opportunities that might never come again.

So I’m pretty sure I made the right call, there’s a lot left to get out of this, and I know that if I hadn’t gone, I would have regretted the missed chance. So long as it is understood that other universities are not as warm as Swarthmore, and living expenses abroad are essentially guaranteed to be higher, I would recommend a semester away to pretty much everyone. Studying abroad is a valuable and unique experience which really rounds off a college education well. But I’ll still be really happy to get back.

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