Author: Tim O’Donnell
Occidental students are determined to fully immerse themselves in a new country when they study abroad. This usually entails entrenching themselves in another culture, learning the language and gaining a new perspective through daily life in a foreign society. Occidental’s International Program’s Office (IPO) tries to help them achieve this goal.
However, many of the study abroad programs IPO partners with do not provide a truly independent, immersive experience. Arcadia, University Studies Abroad Consortium (USAC) and the Institute for the International Education of Students (IES) prevent students from embracing independent and international lifestyles while abroad by instilling a pre-set program-constructed experience. Other programs such as the Council for International Educational Exchange (CIEE) and the School for International Training (SIT) are more intent on developing a fully immersive experience by encouraging homestays, independent research and language studies, but still keep students within the rigidity of their semester plan.
When students enroll in third-party programs, they are surrounded by other American students and have their study abroad experiences shaped by the program’s design — orientations, excursions and living situations are all organized by the program. For many students, this is a blessing. The programs provide a sense of structure and allow students to adjust more comfortably to their new environment.
Robin Craggs, IPO’s executive director, said that Occidental partners with many of these programs because the college trusts them. Since Occidental students pay full tuition while abroad, Craggs and her colleagues need to have a high level of assurance that students will be attending academic institutions that mimic Occidental’s academic mission, as well as provide similar student services to ensure a safe and healthy experience.
Still, IPO should not hesitate to allow students to branch out from their established partnerships in order to create a more personalized study abroad experience.
I have personally studied abroad twice — once on a USAC summer program in Galway, Ireland and, most recently, last semester at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand through Arcadia. I greatly enjoyed my time in both places and have high praise for USAC and Arcadia, but it would be naive to ignore their pitfalls. The program also confines students to a more detailed plan and alters their perspectives on New Zealand before the semester even begins.
This is not an intentional goal of Arcadia’s or any other program. But simply through pamphlets, reviews and orientations, the programs create a vision for the students, rather than allowing them to explore and develop opinions and perspectives based on their own observations. Arcadia’s New Zealand program focused heavily on helping students find the best outdoor activities, but was less intent on getting students excited about New Zealand’s metropolitan areas, like Wellington, or its Maori and colonial history. Because of this, many students did not explore certain areas of the country that could have painted New Zealand in an entirely different light. For students who feel they are prepared for an independent experience, programs can often hold them back.
This does not mean that the relationship between IPO and these programs is unimportant. Indeed, Occidental should continue to partner with these programs and encourage students who seek a smoother, more comfortable transition during their semester abroad to participate in them.
But Craggs also acknowledged that IPO is in the midst of shifting its focus for students who want a more immersive experience than current programs can offer — and they should. The revamped goal is for studying abroad to become more student-centered rather than program-centered. That is, IPO is attempting to find ways to give students more agency over the design of their semester abroad.
So far, IPO is ahead of the game in this sense. Craggs said that they recently removed the bolded font from certain programs from IPO’s list. These bolded programs, which indicated an exceptional mutual trust, often distracted students from looking into the college’s other options for study abroad. Now, there is no way to differentiate between the 170 or so study abroad options approved by Occidental.
On the other hand, Pomona College offers only 55 pre-approved options and requires students to petition to attend any other program, making it very difficult for a student to design their own study abroad experience. Several larger universities, such as NYU, also have international centers around the globe where they employ university faculty. This allows for even less personalization, as students are simply experiencing their home university’s routine in a different country.
Occidental has an opportunity to become a leader in re-evaluating study abroad, but IPO should continue to promote this line of thinking by more openly and actively encouraging students to research and outline their own ideas that fit their needs for a cultural exchange. Currently, a few students each semester do present thorough research and are approved by IPO, but the number needs to increase. IPO could allow students to apply to more than one study abroad program in order to achieve this. Students will often apply to a college-approved program because they feel that it represents a safer acceptance rate than direct exchange or lesser-known programs. Applying to more than one program could alleviate the pressure. However, the evolution of study abroad falls as much on students as much as it does IPO.
More and more students should think outside of the box when it comes to a semester abroad and search for new universities in new places. They need to complete thorough research on their chosen university, city and country and prove to IPO that their plan reflects Occidental’s mission. Expanding study abroad horizons will benefit both the individual student and the school. An independent and truly immersive study abroad experience can bring back unique global perspectives and help create a more progressive, holistic academic and personal experience back at Occidental.
Tim O’Donnell is a senior history major. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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