At Kenyon, it seems that most students study abroad primarily to immerse themselves in a different culture. Some do this to become more proficient in the language, others to explore hands-on the history or culture, and some simply want to get out of rural Ohio. And these are all fair and good reasons to study abroad. But here I want to emphasize a component of studying abroad that doesn’t – in my view – get the attention it deserves: academics.
Admittedly, my motivations to study abroad were non-standard to begin with. I’m positively infatuated with the philosophy of physics (I’m a double major in physics and philosophy). So when shopping around for a study abroad program after being drawn in by the “it’ll change your life” platitudes (incidentally, it did change my life), academics were a high priority. I couldn’t afford to not get credit towards my majors, and a year or even a semester without rigorous work in both subjects would have been devastating. While academics may not be at the top of your list depending on your interests, my hope is to convince you that you ought to strongly consider the academic facets of programs because they have the potential to significantly impact your experience.
I came across IFSA-Butler’s Oxford program my first year when a group of seniors who had studied abroad at Oxford the previous year gave a presentation about their experiences. I was enamored. The prestige, history, and beauty were intoxicating. I spent the next year trying to figure out how I could afford to spend a year at this dreamy place in spite of all of my major requirements.
Or more appropriately, I spent a year coming to realize what a perfect fit Oxford was for the sort of academic experience I wanted to have. As a small school, Kenyon doesn’t offer any classes in the philosophy of physics. Oxford happens to have one of the best philosophy of physics departments in the world! (That being said, many UK universities have top-notch philosophy of physics departments, many of which IFSA-Butler has programs with.) So getting to study the exciting intersection between my majors at a university with such a strong department was a very compelling reason. I was also drawn to Oxford’s famous tutorial system. The tutorial system emphasizes independent learning and allows students to engage one-on-one with world experts in their subject. I was homeschooled for most of my life, so learning out of books is how I learned to learn. The intensely personal learning experience that Oxford offers was perfectly suited to me. I spent most of my time in libraries, starting out by reading the materials on the reading list from my tutor but branching out to other works that caught my attention along the way. The essay topics were often broad enough that I had the freedom to focus on the subtopics that interested me most. In tutorials, there was nowhere to hide from my mistakes so it made for an intense and very productive learning environment. It was exactly what I was looking for and I thrived in it.
To be clear, I don’t mean to denigrate the cultural aspects of a study abroad experience. I engaged with the community by joining an a cappella group, and participating in outreach events with the physics department. I spent plenty of time in the many pubs, and I travelled widely and learned as much as I could about England’s rich and beautiful culture. By the end of my year there, I felt so at home that even now I feel a strange sort of homesickness. But for me the opportunity to study my niche passion at the best department in the world in a unique way that suited me was what really what made the whole experience so transformative and valuable. And in my experience, academics is a component of the study abroad experience that doesn’t get as much attention as it should.
My point is this: when choosing a program, think also about what sort of academic experience you’re looking for, and do the relevant research. Study abroad can be about a unique and perhaps otherwise unattainable academic experience. For me, it was an invaluable component of my undergraduate education as it bridged the gap between my majors at Kenyon, reinforcing the conviction (that I only had a mere taste of when declaring my double major) that these two fields are in many ways deeply interconnected.