Study abroad: An invaluable part of your education

by Beacon Staff • September 9, 2009

This is not news: The world is shrinking. Last Thanksgiving I flew from Boston to Eugene, Ore. in under six hours. That means I tacked 1,285 miles onto the Oregon Trail and still beat the covered wagon folk by five months, without coming down with dysentery.

This summer I flew from Seattle to Colombo, Sri Lanka, and while I did contract head lice and scabies, my experience irrevocably changed how I view the world. I will not forget the coastal ghost towns, where wreckage from the 2004 tsunami remains abandoned and untouched. I will never forget the faces of the 110 orphans I lived and worked with every day. My scope has changed, to say the least.

I am in awe of the world-exactly what a student should be. I know I am coming back to Emerson with a mindset that will allow me to absorb more of what our school offers, and I believe we all should have the opportunity to fortify our education through travel abroad.

It is possible to go virtually anywhere at any time, but the fact remains: My thirty-odd days in Sri Lanka cost me the better part of my life savings, and my job at Starbucks probably won't fund another global excursion for quite some time.

As students, we find ourselves in a Catch-22. Most of us wouldn't turn down the chance to be global citizens, but we simply can't fathom how to pull off the globe-trotting life.

That's because without some support, we can't. Colleges and universities have to recognize the importance of a global perspective and incorporate it into education-as a necessity, rather than an extravagance.

At Emerson, studying abroad is not only expensive, but restricting and incredibly inconvenient. You pretty much have three options: the Netherlands, a sister school in Taipei or a summer film program in Prague. If you try to branch outside Emerson, you're in for a Himalayan-sized mountain of paperwork.

To study through a non-Emerson program you must withdraw from the college for a semester, find a set of classes offered at said program which fill your major requirements, and have Emerson approve those classes. Then, and only then, you can go abroad for one semester; but before you re-enroll at Emerson, you have to reapply.

Emerson Director of International Study and External Programs David Griffin said the re-application process is nothing more than a formality, provided the applicant hasn't had serious disciplinary issues while away.

But formality or not, withdrawing and reapplying could make this kabuki dance more daunting than the trip's cost.

Gloomy prospects at Emerson aside, there are people working to make abroad experiences more tangible for American students. Rita Golden Gelman, founder of Let's Get Global, has made it her life goal to help more students achieve a global education.

Gelman, 72, is a travel extremist who began traveling at age 48. She has had no permanent address since 1986. Today, she is trying to open avenues and spread awareness about the many options students have.

"We are hoping to help students see this is not only for the elite, who have always done it. The concept is possible for everyone," Gelman said in a telephone interview.

Harvard, Princeton and Tufts universities and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are ahead of the curve, Gelman said, in urging incoming freshmen to take a gap year abroad before they enroll. Emerson should follow in the footsteps of these top-tier schools and encourage students to take a trip while they can.

In 2005, Goucher College of Towson, Md., announced it would require all undergraduates to study abroad. Afterward, applications and enrollment increased, according to a 2006 report published on InsideHigherEd.com. At about half the size of Emerson, Goucher proves small does not necessarily mean powerless when it comes to sending students around the globe and back.

As the world contracts, the lens through which we view it should expand. Merely reading about the world isn't enough anymore. We love the castle, but sending 85 students to our American compound in The Netherlands each semester doesn't present the same challenge as connecting to a foreign school probably would.

So get on the bandwagon, Emerson. Consider traveling part of our education. We don't want to jump through hoops, we just want to hop on a plane.