Latitude—the choice to study abroad

The opinion piece below is an updated version of the article entitled “Facing pressure to study away” that appeared in the print edition of The Mac Weekly on Friday, March 8, 2013.

What would we get anything done if we didn’t have social pressures? There’s no getting around the fact that they exist—and college campuses carry their own variety (so no, they didn’t die in high school.) Macalester, whose culture one that is outspokenly embraces the idea of ‘the nerd,’ has astonishing pressure to be cool, whatever that means. Would we all be homely, shaggy people if it wasn’t for this pressure?

In the same rite, would anything get done if no one studied abroad at Macalester? This is a question and a pressure I don’t feel gets enough acknowledgement. Perhaps this is the same among other upper-tier liberal arts colleges, but Macalester is, as we all know, obsessively ponderous over ‘internationalism,’ whatever that means.

Let me at least say I am probably an anomaly for what it means to be truly international in the context of this college. I actually don’t even have a passport, and I’ve only met one other person here who doesn’t either. I walk around this campus and I feel like people are yelling out “Hey, your internationalism is showing!” or obviously, my lack thereof. I’m left wondering whether it’s enough to read about the world and not be a part of it like so many people here have? Hence, my dilemma: to go abroad or not?

Now, the difficult part of growing your friend-group at Macalester is that you have to face the likely fact that many of them will go abroad, and they will probably do so at different times. If you are going abroad as well, you may very well not see some of them for an entire year. While I dealt with a close friend going abroad as a foreign exchange student for a year in high school, and distance makes the heart grow fonder (etc, etc,) this news is very hard to swallow. I came to Macalester with ambitious plans to complete a double major and a minor, and while I still keep most of those plans, going abroad was sort of a luxurious, yet out-of-the-question idea. As we got closer to the February 26th deadline, the reality of my friends leaving got closer too as they finalized countries and programs.

I, regretfully, joined in with making plans. I was going to go abroad so I wouldn’t be without my friends for a whole semester, and because of the creepy feeling that it was somehow expected of me. Now, as the deadline has passed, I am happy I consciously decided to not submit a proposal. People seem confused when I tell this, which is disappointing.

Some of my friends think that studying abroad is the most important aspect of a college experience. While many people here hold that to be personally true, I don’t. Going abroad is a difficult and possibly amazing opportunity that people tend to think should take because they can. While the idea of you’ll never have this opportunity again rings very true to me, I don’t believe in taking opportunities simply because they exist: there are times, there are places. I don’t want my first experience abroad to be four months long. I am happy to decline this generous offering Macalester is making because I’m not ready to make quite a leap.

I don’t think study abroad should be undervalued—if there’s an amazing program that really speaks to you, you should probably do it, and it will probably be a highlight of your life. In the same way, it shouldn’t be romanticized. It’s a very sensitive, personal decision. You may approach it differently depending on your international exposure. I have been to 16 states and I’ve never traveled outside the US, and Macalester culture constantly pushes me to change that last part. But, the answer right now is no.

Macalester would probably rather see me march bravely into the ‘real world,’ when the spoiler is that I’m already part of it. I hope people here value this decision enough to take it with the seriousness it deserves. I hope when you choose to go abroad, your reasons don’t include pressure from this campus. I won’t allow traveling to be so important that my whole education hinges on it—it’s not fair to Macalester, whose goal is that you eventually learn what that esoteric word ‘internationalism’ really means. In the meantime, I’m reassured that the world isn’t going anywhere, and that I can take my education to guide me when it’s my time.