Sophomore Slump: Should I Stay or Should I Go (Now)?

I knew that when I got to college I wanted to study abroad, so I made it a point to apply to schools that had strong study abroad programs, and Middlebury seemed to fit the bill wonderfully.

Participants in the C.V. Starr-Middlebury Schools Abroad don’t just study a language — they live it.

With more study abroad propaganda than most schools (how could I pass up going to a school that sent such smiley, racially-diverse students to study in places as exotic as Beijing and Paris?) Middlebury seemed the perfect place to satiate my study abroad dreams.

Students enjoy culture AND smiles while abroad (courtesy of study abroad website)

And now that I’m a sophomore I can finally begin to make plans for my time abroad, which is a bit more difficult than I thought it would be when I was a wide-eyed high school senior. There are decisions to be made: will I study abroad for a semester or a year, English speaking or not, which country, which continent, will I need to go to language school, will I go to a country where I can find classes that fulfill requirements for my major, how will financial aid figure into my decision, etc.

Not so simple, eh?

At a school like Middlebury—where 60% of students study abroad during their junior year—study abroad always just seemed like part of the plan. You come to Midd, you learn a language, you study abroad for a semester or, even better yet, a year and you leave with a beautifully wrapped culturally relevant gift of perspective.

But, as the time for me to apply draws near, I have begun to question this shove-it-down-your-throat perspective to study abroad that Middlebury sometimes serves. At other schools, studying abroad is generally just an option but at Midd, it can sometimes feel like it’s an obligation. In discussing the idea of not going abroad to fellow students, the general response has, 9 times out of 10, been Oh, you have to go! You’re a Midd Kid! And this idea isn’t just propagated by the students alone; the faculty here stress (and I think overly so) not just the importance of a semester abroad, but spending an entire year away from Middlebury.

But, If it’s true that I only have four years at this place, why would I spend a semester or a year away from it?

Spain (or France or Germany or Australia) will always be there, waiting for me to visit, but getting to experience college in its entirety (in the typical, four-years, parties, dorm rooms, cafeteria food kind of way) is a once in a lifetime kind of experience. And while I know that being able to live in an apartment in Paris and have the opportunity to explore its streets until I know them like the back of my hand is a once in a life time experience as well, is it necessary that I experience this while I’m currently enrolled as Middlebury College undergraduate?

I write this in order to gain the perspective of students who have studied abroad for a year, a semester, or not at all, as I, and my fellow sophomores, attempt to make decisions about our study abroad futures.

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11 thoughts on “Sophomore Slump: Should I Stay or Should I Go (Now)?

  1. If you’re looking to have the best academic experience next year, nothing else on the planet will beat Midd. If you want to gain independence/ worldliness/travel hours, J-Term and summer are great times to do that. I really regret my missed semester.

  2. Do those majoring in the sciences face the same type of “pressure” to study abroad? It seems to me that it’s somewhat tricky to do that and stay on track to graduate on time.

  3. Study abroad isn’t for everyone. I’m going abroad to Kenya next semester, and while I’m personally psyched out of my mind, the thought of not seeing some of my best friends for a semester or a full year (or more) is heartbreaking. The thought of not seeing this campus, of not being able to take advantage of all it has to offer, that sucks. But then again, I really won’t be able to replicate this experience after college, being a student and doing independent research in Mombasa.

    It’s different for everyone – there are pros and cons. You just have to weigh them yourself, and ignore other people’s expectations.

    • Hey there,

      I studied abroad my junior spring at Midd (spring 2002) in Kenya, and while I wish I had had more time at Middlebury itself (I was a Feb and graduated as a reg) My Kenya Semester Program at St. Lawrence was a critical experience in my college life, and has had an enormous impact on my life since then….

  4. I faced the same dilemma as a sophomore–I had even filled out my application and turned it in when I realized that I had never really thought about whether I truly wanted to go abroad or not. As you said, you just take it for granted that, as a Middlebury student, you will go abroad.

    And it is ultimately, as Worth said, a very personal choice. I chose not to go abroad–but I also have friends who wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. The only general advice that I can offer is to simply think about what it is you really want to do, and not to just assume that you will go or will not go abroad until you’ve thought about it.

  5. I think a lot of the pressure to go abroad at Middlebury derives from the language departments. Even with amazing programs in these areas, and world renowned summer language schools, the best way to learn a language (and a culture) is to physically go to that country. It has personally been my experience that the French Dept. and the Italian Dept. (the two languages I have taken here) have been the most encouraging (note how I didn’t say pressuring) of me to go abroad.

    That being said, I completely understand the hesitation to leave Middlebury. It’s an amazing school, and leaving it for a year is somewhat of a risk. I’m terrified to go abroad, but I can’t wait either. I know that this will more than likely be one of the only chances I have to live in and experience another country. After college there will inevitably be pressure to go to graduate school, or get a job. Therefore, I want to take advantage of this opportunity while I have it.

  6. I didn’t study abroad during my time at Middlebury, and I was one of the rare ones. For one, I was an international student and technically was ‘abroad’. To add to that I was a Spanish major, and so conceivably, I should have been abroad to practice my language skills, etc. I chose to stay back for a number of reasons, but the most important one was to not break up the incredible experience I was having at Middlebury. I had only just begun to be really involved in clubs I liked, I had finally found what I wanted to study and professors who challenged me, I had begun to connect with the local community through working with the ACE office and I liked the structure and opportunities it was giving me. Yes, I agree, Middlebury does try to shove the ‘study-abroad’ option down your throat, mostly because for language students, there are very few, if any, upper level language courses available. I actually did two independent projects during that time because there weren’t enough Spanish classes to take. However, the one thing I did appreciate during that year was the time to really figure out where I was heading next, as a student and as a person. I had few friends left on campus, which was not fun and did make for some lonely weekends. But I definitely explored activities that I wouldn’t have done before, I took the time to indulge in hobbies that I didn’t have time for before, and I got to know myself a lot better. By the time summer came around, and senior year began, I was ready to take on the challenges without the struggle of ‘getting back’ to Midd, into the student life, into life at Vermont, like many of my friends. It definitely made for a smoother transition during my last year.

    I will say that every single friend of mine who studied abroad loved it, and I am extremely happy for them. However, I agree with Worth – you have to realise what will be best for you at this point. Being on campus can definitely have its advantages, and if that is what you are looking for at this point during college, then you’ll get a lot of out staying back and being involved in everything here.

  7. I studied a language at Midd starting freshman year, so it was always assumed I would go abroad.

    I can understand that you don’t want to leave and miss out on even one semester of Middlebury, but I think as time passes, you’ll get your fair share of of campus life and maybe even regret not stepping out to get a breath of fresh air.

    In defense of studying abroad…

    1. While you might worry about missing your friends, I’d be willing to bet a lot of them will actually be checking out and leaving you alone–such was my case the semester before I studied abroad.

    2. While the article’s not handy at the moment, people are comparing studying abroad for our generation to what college was like for our parents’ in terms of eye-opening experience and influence.

    3. Those countries might always be there, but tell your 25-year-old, 30-year-old future self that you have time and security to postpone a career and go live there for six months. Visiting a country is definitely not the same as living in a country.

    4. When I came back from being abroad, I had a significantly different outlook on life. All of my friends who had been abroad to some degree shared in this change. The appropriate word escapes me, but quite simply put: my friends who had not gone abroad seemed a little less mature when we got back. Some of them felt the need to go abroad after graduation to achieve something they felt they had missed out on as an undergrad.

    5. One semester is short. When you get back to Midd, you’ll realized not much has changed. You’ll have experienced new cultures, thought in new languages, eaten new foods, climbed new mountains, made new friends, and you will certainly see the world (and Middlebury!) with different eyes.

    6. If you study a language already, but don’t go abroad with your classmates, you will miss out (for better and for worse) on what will certainly be the penultimate experience of learning a language at Middlebury.

    7. Depending where you can go, a semester can actually be much cheaper than a semester at Middlebury!

    8. If the economy is still bad, you might be looking for work abroad. It will be a great help to have a background/contacts in another country and to have already gone through the adjustment process once already.

    …this list could go on for a while. And where to study abroad? What would Nicholas Kristof do? http://www.7dvt.com/2010kristof-and-wudunn-advise-midd-kids-get-outside-your-comfort-zone

  8. I should also point out that I didn’t love my experience abroad. It was one of the greatest challenges in my life, but that I think these are what define us.

  9. On a practical note–speaking from personal experience–it can be *incredibly* difficult if not impossible to get a visa once you’ve graduate and aren’t part of a study abroad program. For many countries, particularly European ones, if you want to stay for more than 90 days you must directly enroll at a university there, marry a local, or live illegally. So yes, if you want to live somewhere with notoriously hard-to-come-by visas like Italy or the UK, this really might be your once-in-a-lifetime opportunity right now.
    Of course deciding to study abroad or not is a personal decision, and many of my friends who didn’t had rewarding experiences at Midd becoming JCs and taking on leadership roles in their clubs and activities. However, a month during the summer or J-term abroad isn’t the same thing at all. It’s fun, but it’s also hard as the person above mentioned in a way that a vacation is not. The low point of culture shock really hits about 3 months in, so if you only one month you never really experience it (and I think it’s a life-changing experience, real culture shock). And if you leave after just three months you don’t get the thrilling experience of coming out on the other side of the culture shock with an increased understanding (and usually affection) for your host culture that is truly profound and special.
    It may seem counterintuitive, but I found that studying abroad made graduating and leaving Middlebury easier rather than harder. After your semester or year abroad you have direct evidence that there IS life beyond Midd and it’s pretty awesome–something to look forward to rather than dread.

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