Value of Study Abroad Lies in Pushing Boundaries

Erin Phelps PO '12 was ready for a change of scenery when she applied to study abroad in Nepal.

“I'd heard great things about the Pitzer in Nepal program,” Phelps wrote in an e-mail to TSL

But that was as much as she knew about the mountainous sovereign state.

In the end, Phelps “ended up loving her semester,” massive amounts of rice aside.

“I anticipated that I would love my time in Nepal ... and I didn't expect to be so into the idea of getting back there,” she wrote.

But that’s exactly what she did. Phelps began her Fulbright grant application in the spring of her junior year, and she is now “formulating ideas for youth empowerment programs for children of migrants as well as recommendations for family-centered migration policy.” Phelps relishes the ability to explore what she chooses.

Although students may be tempted to tailor their time at college to a particular career path, spending time overseas is just another part of a liberal arts education, according to Pomona College Director of Study Abroad Rhoda Borcherding.

“It’s a misconception that study abroad has to relate to a student’s major and career,” Borcherding said. “There could be a physicist that wants to study in Athens because they have always enjoyed the classics.”

Some majors do have certain programs that complement Pomona studies. For example, the molecular biology program in London allows students to work in labs and even publish papers. Students with a passion for business can spend five weeks of their Hong Kong program working 40 hours per week in a business internship. Programs can also pair students to work in NGOs and other community service opportunities.

Still, Borcherding stressed, the most valuable asset of a study abroad experience is that it “forces a student to think differently.”

“This student will have the experience of negotiating a foreign culture,” Borcherding said, which can be especially valuable in a later career. “Study abroad is largely seen as a positive on a transcript. It tells future employers that this student is a risk-taker."

She also stated that demonstrating one’s proficiency in a foreign language after being abroad is another employable trait.

“I think many, but not all, future employers would probably view study abroad positively,” Borcherding said. "The problem as I understand it has to do with graduate school admissions, where more courses in one's subject area may be preferred over study abroad."

Director of Pomona’s Career Development Office (CDO) Mary Raymond agreed with the professional benefits associated with studying abroad.

“All of us have to test ourselves to the greatest capacity ... you don’t learn from the easy lessons, you learn from the hard lessons,” she said.

Raymond advised students to emphasize a “contrasting learning environment,” but not necessarily an easier academic load, when describing time abroad in interviews and resumes. Raymond suggested grouping study abroad along with the “education” section of a resume, illustrating that complementary learning experience.

“They don’t want to hear that it was a time to get away from the rigors of their studies,” she said.

Diana Seder, Director of Career Services at Claremont McKenna College, echoed Raymond’s sentiments.

“Or you could be going for the personal development,” Seder said. “I like the personal development side ... to see the world through a number of different lenses.”

Seder also stressed the importance of networking with international alums. Seder explained that CMC students can access a portion of the alumni network to see who lives where in the world for students to establish “natural networks” abroad. 

Claremont students can access resources such as Going Global, a website abounding with information about international employment, which is available through the Pomona, CMC, and Scripps College career services websites.

“Don’t underestimate the Fulbright, either,” Raymond said, in reference to the international educational exchange grant. 

A fruitful study abroad experience could lead to grants and fellowships overseas, as it did for Phelps. Students who go overseas during their time at Pomona often return to that area of the world, Raymond said.

Will Pitkin PO ’13 understands that desire to spend more time abroad. After studying in Argentina in the fall of 2011, he applied for a Fulbright to Brazil and to teach English in Peru and Spain.

“Teaching English is a foot in the door to living independently abroad,” Pitkin said, and studying abroad can be a first step toward finding that door.

The individual who takes on the challenge of living abroad shows more lust for life, Seder said.

“Using public transportation in a country where you don’t speak the language—you know, that can be a particular challenge,” Seder added. “Your eyes are widened.”

Some students, however, don’t view studying abroad as a necessary step in language development. Deirdre Kessler PO ’14 worked as a language counselor at a French immersion program last summer but has not felt the need to go abroad.

“Eight semesters at Pomona is fewer than one might think,” she said, a realization that has led her to pursue summer programs instead of a semester abroad.

Other students, like Carlen Long PO ’15, do not see studying abroad as fitting in with their course loads.

“There’s not really a program for psychology majors,” she said, and because she “got started late” on her major coursework, she believes she simply won’t have the time.

Studying abroad is not for everyone; Borcherding points out that about 55 percent of Pomona students study abroad. But for some of that 55 percent, like Phelps, it can be a decision that leads to a career or academic passion.

“I would just encourage people to think hard about going out of their comfort zones for study abroad,” Phelps said.