During the sweltering summer of 2002, Dillon Smith (SFS ’07) found himself standing on Paris’ famed Champs Elysees amid a mob of tourists, cycling enthusiasts and curiosity-seekers alike.

As a summer student in Paris, he was standing, waiting for Lance Armstrong and his Tour de France entourage to arrive. Smith began to converse with a middle-aged Londoner and a German cycling enthusiast.

Soon enough, the peleton – the main body of cyclers – flew by with hardly a moment to snap a photograph, but Smith noted, “What was wonderful was that there I was standing in the most famous street in all of France watching the most famous sports event – at least given the fact that the World Cup stood four years away – in all of France standing next to men from around Europe.”

Two days later he returned to his rural Vermont home after spending five weeks in France.

Growing numbers of students like Smith are changing the definition of study abroad.

Nationwide, students are increasingly opting for shorter study abroad programs, those less than a semester in length. Instead of taking courses abroad over a semester or year, they are deciding to take focused trips over semester breaks.

From 1985 to 2003, the number of students participating in short study abroad programs – less than one semester in length – jumped 463 percent while the number of students spending a semester or quarter abroad rose only 167 percent in the same period, according to figures from the Institute for International Education. Approximately 48 percent of the 159,000 students who study abroad from the U.S. attend short, month or six-week long programs.

But for now, students on the Hilltop continue to prefer longer programs, according to statistics from the Office of International Programs.

At Georgetown, this short-program participation rate hovers around 24 percent of the over 900 students who studied abroad this academic year.

Michael Vande Berg, director of Office of International Programs, attributed the difference between the national trend and Georgetown to a variety of reasons including the easy access to information about long study-abroad programs via friends and professors as well as the international focus of most Georgetown students.

At some schools where fewer students study abroad, some prospective travelers are intimidated by the prospect of spending too much time in a foreign place. Those fears are frequently allayed at Georgetown, he said, through discussions with other students who have participated in similar programs.

According to Vande Berg, the national trend was exacerbated by the growth of study-abroad programs for engineering, math and science students, who traditionally have not gone abroad because major courses were not available.

By contrast, humanities students have traditionally composed the bulk of the study-abroad population, but with the advent of short programs often taught in English rather than the local language by American professors, “technical and professional” students now have the option of going abroad.

Instead of studying French literature in Paris for a semester, they can do ecological fieldwork in the rainforests of Costa Rica over a three-week period.

Although Vande Berg emphasized that duration of study abroad programs is an insufficient criterion for judging their worth, he did express worries about the growth of shorter programs. “Georgetown has a long history of promoting direct enrollment [in foreign universities], which is not possible with shorter programs,” he said.

Direct enrollment requires the admission of Georgetown students to foreign universities where they take classes with foreign students in the local academic language rather than taking a course taught by a Georgetown professor with other American students in a foreign country.

Vande Berg also expressed concerns over the phenomenon of “selective perception,” which he described as a reinforcement of preexisting notions that occurs during brief experiences. “If we are in a foreign place for a limited period of time, we are likely to seek out evidence that confirms any stereotypes we may have,” he said. “We unconsciously phase out evidence to the contrary.”

When study abroad programs are merely a transplant of American universities in a foreign country, there is little intercultural learning.

In such cases, students hold their “intercultural breath,” preserving their American characteristics, conceptions and ideas and never integrating into the local culture.

Vande Berg compared shorter programs to vacations.

“Going abroad on a vacation we remain American; the goal is not to acculturate. It is relatively easier to hold one’s intercultural breath if you are there for a short time.”

Vande Berg emphasized that “intelligent programming” with the help of faculty advisers and discussions can help counter selective perception. Shorter programs can serve specific purposes such as language acquisition extremely well, he said, citing such programs as Georgetown’s centers in Tours, France and Trier, Germany.

The Office of International Programs currently offers more than 110 abroad programs and is in the process of developing its 15th and 16th short programs.

Erin Pope (COL ’07) spent the summer of 2001 studying in Japan and a year studying in Germany before matriculating at Georgetown.

“I would have liked to have spent more time in Japan if I could have spoken Japanese better,” she said. “To really get a grasp of a culture and fully enjoy the experience, being fluent in the language is a must.”

Pope said she also plans to study in South Africa her junior year. Currently planning on a business or economics major, she is among the cadres of “professional and technical” students who are swelling the study abroad population.

Elizabeth Wagoner (SFS ’04), who spent a semester in Santiago, Chile, and another semester in Strasbourg, France also advocated longer trips.

“Splitting up the year, you sort of cheat yourself out of both countries,” she said.

Adam Roth (COL ’04) took courses for one semester in adrid and then interned at the U.S. Embassy there for one semester. “Living abroad involves a huge adjustment process, and I feel like I had just begun to truly feel at home in Madrid at the end of my first semester there,” he said. “Being abroad for an entire year allowed me to relax and experience normal adrid life without being so concerned about traveling and sightseeing as many weekends as possible.”

As for Smith, the summer excursion in Paris led him to realize that he needed a second trip to capitalize on his study abroad experience.

“I loved France. I can’t wait to go back. I plan on studying for a year, and the question that remains is only where,” he said. “The problem that remains is merely that there are so many wonderfully enticing spots that I’d like to go to.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *