I am the 55%: Choosing Not to Study Abroad

amherst and london

amherst and london(Marie Lambert)– When I began the college search, I was often given advice by counselors, teachers, and various adults who thought they had some authority on the subject. Logistics and actual possibility of admission aside, one of the hottest topics in the college admissions game seemed to be finding the school that was “the best fit for you.” This was a phrase that counselors, teachers, and various other adults were fond of, encouraging me to make lists of aspects I was looking for in a school, buy the Fiske College Guide (bible), and even draw pictures of what I imagined my ideal college to be. And I, like so many others desperate to escape the mundane horror of high school for the social and academic paradise that college seemed to be, listened to them. I spent hours in Barnes and Noble reading college guides and ratings; I even drew a half-hearted picture of some ideal, amorphous college campus. And I made extensive lists of criteria organized by highest level of importance: generous financial aid package; small class sizes and student body; easily accessible, wide variety of study abroad programs.

Studying abroad was one of the highest on my many lists. At age 17, I couldn’t tell you much about what I wanted specifically from a college experience, but I could tell you that I wanted to be an English major and I wanted to study abroad in the United Kingdom, preferably London. I know, so original. I was unrelenting on this point, and it was one of the reasons that I chose to apply to Amherst Early Decision over Vassar, which has a more limited direct exchange program. At least with regards to studying abroad, Amherst seemed perfect: going abroad was popular and encouraged; there were lots of programs in the UK; my financial aid would even carry over with me. It was perfect—I would get the chance to attend two schools in two countries for the same price. What more could I want?

But then I came to Amherst, and as it often turns out, everything changed. Not immediately—I continued to follow my mental plan (fall semester junior year, London, English/Literature programs) up until last fall, the middle of my sophomore year. I talked to professors about it; I looked into programs; I thought about the logistics and travel. And then, suddenly, I discovered that I didn’t want to go.

Weirdly enough, my first reaction to this realization was guilt, followed quickly by relief. There are literally no good reasons for you not to study abroad. When will you ever be able to live in Europe for three months for this price? How could you throw away such an opportunity that would be so easy to take? This is true; considering my financial aid package alone, it seems a crime that I wouldn’t take all the chances I could while the school was paying for it. I sure as hell won’t be taking any trips abroad on a post-grad English major’s salary.

The guilt made sense, but the relief? No one was forcing me to go abroad except myself. For the longest time, the idea of studying abroad was the last vestige of my preconceived college experience that remained, apart from the English major. Study abroad is a quintessential “college” experience; the culture shock and exposure to the non-American world seem to be necessary components of the traditional liberal arts education. I understand and appreciate this, but I’d like to do it on my own time, in my own way, not necessarily having a program transplant me into another American community that just happens to be in another country.

Particularly after this year at Amherst, I’ve realized there is a lot that I want to do here: returning professors to meet, clubs to run (whaddup Amherst Mock Trial), and already more classes that interest me than I could possibly take. At the risk of sounding overdramatic, this campus is changing, and I’d like to be a part of that. So I won’t be going abroad. I’m not sure what percentage of juniors spend the whole year in Amherst, but from conversations it doesn’t sound like many. As the population of 2015s fluctuates over the next year, I will remain a constant in the equation. There will be no Facebook albums of me posing with the London guard. I will spend the spring listening to stories about the comedic side of culture shock but will have none of my own. I will watch friends come and go and feel the awkwardness of group dynamics struggling to adapt while some key elements are away. I will continue to complain about our social life, but at least I won’t have the glamorous European club scene to compare it to. I will probably get sick of Amherst—of the work and the people and the square mile bubble that I inhabit—but sometimes getting sick of a place is the best way to learn to really appreciate it.

I’ll be here through another year of freshman orientation and homecoming and Crossett Christmas and ridiculous winter weather and Extravaganja and E-board elections and Spring Weekend. Looking back over my lists of qualities for an ideal college, I’ve realized that Amherst is still that college. Despite its myriad of problems, I think that here is still a pretty amazing place. I only get four years here, and the rest of the world will still be there when they’re over. So for the next year I will be here—for better or for worse—reading, complaining, and always writing.

Photo credit here and here