Equalizing Study Abroad Opportunities

Throughout their four years of studies, many students at universities across America choose to spend one of their eight semesters abroad. The opportunity to experience and assimilate into a culture other than the one in which the student is familiar provides an excellent chance for widening horizons and diversifying thought. The intellectual frameworks and exposure to unique cultures that are built through studying, working, and living abroad are different than what students experience at Princeton. Some Princeton students who wish to spend one of their semesters abroad have support from their department as well as the financial means to do so. However, other students, for academic, financial, or scheduling reasons, find it difficult to fit a semester abroad into their Princeton experience. The Board believes that the University should equalize opportunities for studying abroad across all majors at Princeton, and make studying abroad a feasible option for all students who may be interested in doing so.

Currently, some departments have better programs for studying abroad than others. For example, the Woodrow Wilson School encourages semesters abroad, offering three specific Woody Woo programs with comparable classes to its concentrators each semester at international universities. The Economics department, on the other hand, when describing the possibility of taking core courses abroad, states on their website, “You can search for courses elsewhere [meaning at universities abroad] and consult the Economics Dep. Rep. about the suitability of courses, but the answer is likely to be no. It is much better to plan ahead and complete the core courses before going abroad.” This means that Economics students who wish to study abroad, as just one example, are discouraged from taking any Economics courses away from Princeton. For students who are not aware of these restrictions when they plan their first semester at Princeton, studying abroad is nearly impossible as a result of lack of flexibility in their schedules. Additionally, with regards to independent work, most departments have required seminars or lectures for students during Junior year, especially Junior fall that they are unable to miss, forcing them to forego their abroad experience. Princeton students’ ability to study abroad should not be limited by their choice of major or area of study.

In order to equalize opportunity for studying abroad among departments, the Board recommends that if a department believes their junior seminar is so crucial that all students must take them, the burden should be on that department to film the seminar and make it available for students who are abroad. In departments like Economics or Politics where independent work seminars are completed in the fall semester, the Board recommends that the departments encourage Junior Spring as a good time to go abroad, when students will not miss these lectures. The Board believes it is reasonable for Princeton to require students to take core departmental classes at Princeton, for the sake of standardization and uniformity among concentrators. However, we believe elective courses in concentrations can be found at similar standards at prestigious international universities. As such, we suggest that Princeton require students to complete the core departmental courses in their concentration at Princeton, but give them the flexibility to take departmental electives that hold to Princeton’s academic standard while studying abroad. This will allow students to have much greater flexibility while planning their time abroad, as it would allow them to fulfill requirements while they are abroad, instead of having to accelerate their department course load into seven semesters. We understand that the concern about students potentially taking easier courses abroad to inflate their departmental GPA is a legitimate one, so we propose that only Princeton University departmental courses be included in a departmental GPA.

The Board believes that Princeton needs to make studying abroad more available to all students for mental health-related reasons. Within the “Orange Bubble,” many students battling depression, anxiety, or other mental health concerns feel trapped by their inability to get off campus. Since Princeton only offers the option of a gap year and not a gap semester, the Board believes one semester abroad would be a valid alternative for students who need a change from campus life, but do not want to take an entire year off. Students who do not enjoy being on campus for all eight semesters should not have to change or accelerate their studies into the other seven semesters, creating a more rigorous and stressful schedule than other students, to be able to enjoy the opportunity to leave for their eighth semester.

The Board recognizes that studying abroad in the summer is another valid option available to Princeton students as an alternative to a semester, and that a summer experience provides a way for a student to experience living abroad without the restrictions that come along with going abroad during a semester. However, summer study abroad options are not a feasible alternative for every Princetonian, especially low-income students. If a student were to study abroad during a semester, their tuition along with their financial aid package remains the same that it would if they were studying at Princeton for a semester. However, this does not apply to all summer programs, many of which require students and their financial guardians to pay thousands of dollars to study or intern abroad. During the summer, low-income students work to sustain their financial aid package and to make money for themselves and their family. Summer study abroad programs are infeasible for these students, as they require foregoing a summer job, and possibly spending thousands of dollars for their experience. Without the possibility of semester study abroad, they will not receive the same opportunities that other students have to study abroad during their time at Princeton. The Board believes that the lack of opportunity to go abroad because of financial reasons needs to be corrected so that every student, regardless of their economic background, can receive the same chance for a beneficial cultural experience.

For departmental equality, mental health, and socioeconomic reasons, the Board urges the University to make studying abroad more viable.

Dissent

We agree with the majority that study abroad can offer valuable experiences to certain students. But we dissent to make clear that we do not support a change in Princeton’s culture that would see many more students leaving campus during the academic year to study abroad. Princeton’s strong residential community and undergraduate academic excellence are what distinguish the University from our peer institutions, and changes to the study abroad policy should not diminish these unique attributes.

More than 98% of Princeton undergraduates live on campus, creating a residential culture that engages students in social life, maintains a sense of community cohesion, and fosters school pride. These strong ties are maintained throughout students’ four years in a continuous way that is distinct from a school like Dartmouth, where all students leave campus for at least one term during their undergraduate career. Current levels of study abroad at Princeton do not diminish the strength of our residential community but a larger shift in campus attitudes around study abroad could hurt this unique attribute of Princeton life, which we would oppose.

Turning to academics, Princeton offers a uniquely rigorous undergraduate program with challenging workloads, plentiful independent work opportunities, and diverse course offerings across departments. Yet the majority ignores this crucial diversity in asserting “that the University should equalize opportunities for studying abroad across all majors at Princeton.” Should the University also “equalize” independent work across majors? It should not, because there are fundamental differences between academic disciplines in terms of methodology and style. Similarly, study abroad may be more educationally valuable or feasible for certain concentrations than others, making it appropriate for different departments to have different requirements related to study abroad.

Yet the majority urges some departments to loosen their requirements for transfer credit from other institutions. We believe it is reasonable for departments, who know more about differences between their courses and outside courses than the majority does, to choose to maintain their stricter requirements and not diminish the quality of their academic program if they believe accepting more transfer credit would do so. In such cases the burden should be on students to plan ahead to facilitate study abroad rather than for departments to diminish their requirements. For example, the Economics Department publishes a document to facilitate student planning to study abroad while completing their departmental obligations. This illustrates that while it may require more planning to study abroad in some departments than in others, it is certainly possible to do so.

In conclusion, all Princeton departments offer students leeway to study abroad. In some departments, study abroad may be more flexible than in others, but such differences are reasonable and appropriately left to the department’s discretion. Study abroad has merit in exposing students to new experiences and as an alternative to a gap year for students who would like to leave for mental health reasons. But we believe Princeton’s residential community and academic excellence could be undermined by a broad shift in campus culture that results in more students leaving for study abroad. For these reasons, we respectfully dissent.

Signed,

Allison Berger ‘18
Paul Draper ‘18
Theodore Furchtgott ‘18
MaryAnn Placheril ‘21
Gabriel Swagel ‘20
Nicholas Wooldridge ‘21