Theory Versus Reality of Studying Abroad

Winter at Lawrence University is the time when students begin considering the possibility of studying abroad. As droves of students return from their fall programs and application deadlines for next year loom closer, it is easy to get overwhelmed by all of the possibilities and logistics of spending a term—or more—away from campus. However, returning students and the Director of Off-Campus Programs Laura Zuege were able to offer their opinions and advice about the process.

Zuege’s view of studying abroad is directly tied to her own experiences as a Lawrence student. “For me, studying abroad was the most important thing that I did when I was a student … I was very good at taking classes in a classroom, but studying abroad was an opportunity to experience what I was learning and learn why I like learning. [It’s also about] personal independence [and] personal growth. That impact was something I really hadn’t anticipated and that can be a really powerful aspect,” said Zuege.

Zuege listed Senegal, India, Granada, and “The Earth and Environment in Italy” programs as among the most popular ones that Lawrence offers, but the one that students likely hear the most about is the London Centre. “It’s been going since July of 1970. Well over 3,000 Lawrence alumni have done the program,” Zuege explained. According to Zuege, despite the centre’s relative popularity, the study abroad office “[tries] to do a lot of things very consciously, because I don’t want people to think that it’s London or nothing. I don’t want people to think we have six programs—we have about 60 in total. So when someone comes and talks to me and says ‘I’m interested in going to London,’ what we automatically say is ‘Why is that? How is that a good academic match for you?’ to make sure that there isn’t a program they know less about that might be a better match for them.

Zuege continued, “We also try to highlight the experiences of students who have done a variety of programs … I want to be sure that people understand this isn’t just for language majors, and I want to highlight students who are studying in York or Madagascar, not just Lawrence programs.”

The students who have done non-Lawrence programs are very excited to share their experiences with other students, even if they are smaller in number. Junior Margaret Koss, who studied in York this past fall, stated that, “I think my program is underrepresented by the school, and I would definitely recommend it to other students because I don’t know of many programs where you can be directly enrolled in another university. It’s also perfect if you’re not going for a language, but you still want to be a part of another culture and be a part of another school where you don’t know anyone.”

She explained that, “It was something that I found on my own by looking at the Lawrence programs online … The study abroad office was really encouraging, but didn’t really know much about it. They put me in contact with another student who had done it, but they didn’t really want to talk to me, so I had to figure out which classes I could take and what credits would transfer back here kind of on my own. I had to contact all these different people at York—and then at the program provider—and I had to talk to the English department and fill out two separate applications … It was pretty much a lot of work on my own.”

Junior Sadie Tenpas, who studied in Madagascar, had similar troubles. “I know that my biggest confusion was with the application process. You had to have all of these components of your application go on to other places, and I think someone had informed [me] at some point that [Lawrence] sends on the information for you, so I just sent it in to Lawrence and thought I was done. And I didn’t think I had to do anything until I realized that they hadn’t sent it … It was fine, it just took me forever to figure out on my own,” she said.

However, Tenpas continued, “I really liked my program and I’m really glad I went on it … I realized after talking to the study abroad office that it was really the only science program that I could go on for biology without an intermediate language, which was kind of frustrating because I feel like there are a lot of programs, but not really for science.”

If figuring out what options you have with your intended major seems daunting or limited, Zuege advised students to meet with her and their advisor, stating that the “most important [thing] to think about, before you even look at a map and think ‘Where can I go?’, is to think ‘What do I want to study?”

Junior Kristina Verhasselt, who studied in London, offered similar advice. “I picked [London] because I knew I had always wanted to go somewhere, and I didn’t really have a major picked out at the time [I was applying], so I figured London would be the best option for that,” she said.

However, once she had figured out her major, Verhasselt said, “ [I] actually found a more interesting [summer] program through my advisor, and I think it helped that I kind of realized what I wanted to do. Studying abroad before you know what you want to do maybe will lead you to make a decision like London, which might not be the best, but I didn’t feel like they could give me any other options because I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”