Izzy Evans in a Paraguayan market with Meg Pierce. Photo by Audrey Del Rosario
Hasta Luego, Not Goodbye
By Isabel H. Evans
When I first excitedly told Harvard friends and classmates that I would be studying abroad in Buenos Aires during my fall 2012 semester, I did not quite get the upbeat “bon voyage!” I was expecting. Reactions were mostly negative. They ranged from: “How could you ever think to leave Harvard for a semester?” to “You can do that during the summer,” and finally the brutal, “The only people that go abroad during the year hate school or have no friends.” Almost every student seemed to think studying abroad during term time is, at best, unnecessary and, at worst, a waste.
Harvard’s Office of International Education website offers statistics that reflect this overall aversion. The most recent numbers, from the 2010-2011 school year, show that only 141 out of Harvard’s roughly 6,400 students went abroad during the year. More do venture forth in summer, but the total of students engaging in international experiences is still strikingly low. Even including summer, only 598 students had an experience abroad. With this discouragement, I feared perhaps my choice to go to Argentina might be a bad one. I said a gloomy, “Hasta luego” to all.
However, now that I have completed my fall semester in Buenos Aires and am back on campus, I am convinced that more Harvard students need to study internationally, especially during term time. The negative reaction and culture that surrounds studying abroad at Harvard is close-minded and shallow. Harvard students tend to get so obsessed with the Harvard world that they begin to have no interest in exploring the outside one. For such an international and diverse school, it seems wrong that so few of us stray outside our comfort zones.
Of course, my time abroad was not perfect, and there were moments when I yearned for the sound of the Lowell bells instead of the incessant reggaeton blasting from the streets outside my window. But my experience taught me so many things in just a few months that I never would have learned in the classroom. Seeing thousands of Argentines banging pots and pans on the streets in opposition to President Cristina Kirchner showed me a protest movement very different from Occupy Wall Street. On a trip to Paraguay with my program, we visited a torture chamber created by dictator Alfredo Stroessner to hold anyone suspected of communist beliefs during Operation Condor. Listening to an old prisoner and touring the grounds where countless people had suffered taught me much more about the importance of democracy and freedom than any Gen Ed ever could.
Living in a completely different culture and having no choice but to speak Spanish was both challenging and stimulating. I became stronger because of the difficult days when I could not communicate with my host family no matter how hard I tried. When our conversations did flow easily, I became aware of politics and problems I had never known about before. By living there for a few months, rather than a few weeks, I became deeply immersed and came to consider the city a home.
Studying abroad during the school year is the only way to combat the epidemic of FOMO (“fear of missing out”) that plagues this campus. Many students I talked to stressed that they were afraid to go abroad. They were nervous they would miss something gigantic or would be forgotten because of their absence. This is an irrational obstacle. Leaving for a semester does not mean leaving forever. We do not have to be at every event, go to every party, or be in every Harvard-Yale Instagram photo.
Going away is perhaps not for everyone. You may have a job or too many requirements or you may have taken a gap year and thought that was enough. Or you just don’t like to travel, which is perfectly understandable with the state of airplane food today. But more of us should still be taking the chance to do something off the beaten path. Back at school now, I feel I have a very necessary perspective. I think less about all of my little Harvard complaints (Lamont café sandwiches, for example) and instead am excited to embrace all the opportunities that our school offers.
Isabel “Izzy” Evans is a junior at Harvard living in Adams House. She is an English concentrator pursuing the honors track. For her fall 2012 semester, she studied abroad in Buenos Aires with the SIT: Southern Cone program.