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The downsides to a great study abroad experience

By Matthew Kowalyk

Section: Opinions

August 25, 2017

Studying abroad can reward you, but be aware of how much work you will have to do given what little support you receive from the Office of Study Abroad. Know why you are going.

I spent the last year away from Brandeis on the London School of Economics (LSE) General Course program, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in history, economics, management, finance or otherwise. There is nothing I could complain about with LSE other than what someone could take issue with at most other schools, like the workload or the hit-or-miss food served at some of the housing. LSE only has exams once at the end of each academic year, and there is an huge amount of reading. At times it can be difficult, and it is not a program meant for leisure, though you can certainly will have fun if you plan well. I found the courses, professors and the traveling I did in Europe to be incredibly rewarding.

While making the choice to go, I was not fond of the Office of Study Abroad’s push toward an experience in which I could “find myself.” My alternative plan was a semester in Singapore at the Singapore Management University, which I learned during my decision process in fall 2015 was newly opened to Brandeis students. I thought the treatment of culture was a bit strange, though, given the preference for programs that are not academically rigorous and which prioritized self-discovery. The U.K. was not ‘different’ enough from home; too safe, apparently. I wanted to go in order to study at the LSE, but it would seem that a “feels” journey is encouraged over an academic one, especially in what one might consider an alien culture. Considering the mantra and general attitude of our university, it seems a little strange. I am one to not take such things as deathly seriously, but the cognitive dissonance is interesting regardless.

Despite my resistance to wanting to “find myself” abroad, I did learn a bit more about what I might want to do in the future and myself while doing some traveling in the U.K. and elsewhere. Though it is true that travel broadens the mind, I am not going to begin consulting on the subject of discovering oneself against the background of another culture. I think the negative aspects of this attitude are neglected when students travel, fostering a pretentious reverence for the countries they visit. That in itself creates an image of the other which could impede cross-cultural learning and association, and certainly is not the basis for making new friends.

It does not help either that the office may push for semi-spiritual experiences abroad, while only certain programs offer real support while you are away from home. That’s the central issue I had; I planned effectively as much as I could with packing and payments, but the program seemed like more of a free-for-all than I had hoped. Other Brandeis students and I had trouble obtaining visas, and the office was not helpful with the process. Once we were abroad we only checked in with them a few times.

The abroad office should not be overly paternalistic, but other schools offered programs to bring students together while abroad: Students from GW, for example, had planned events and gatherings to keep everyone together in London, while most Brandeis students rarely saw each other in the same city. Maybe this is nitpicky, as I could see the want for students to be independent, not to mention the fact that tickets and venues are not cheap. However, some people, like me, were gone for a long time. It was my choice to do so, which could mean that I take the consequences of not being at Brandeis for a long period of time, but at the same time there are things that could have kept us in the fold. You should most definitely still go abroad despite this. The personal and professional benefits are enormous.

One should be ready to do all of the hard paperwork yourself, be realistic in your expectations, try to genuinely engage with the people you meet and know why you are going abroad. It would be better if the abroad office would support us in some ways like other schools’ programs do. I am sure there are practical constraints to this, though I hope that they can be, in the future, more up front about that fact. Despite my criticisms, I could very well call my experience an adventure, though a lot of the worldview expansion I did was sitting in the LSE library.

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