More Duke students are currently studying abroad than ever before. But the pronounced disparity between the number of students who go in the Fall versus in the Spring can have complicated implications for housing and student life.
There are 505 students abroad this semester, up from 471 in the Fall of 2012. An additional 20 students are studying in New York as part of the Arts and Media program for a total of 525 students in the global education program, compared to last year’s 493.
This figure surpasses the previous record of 494 students, set in Fall 2011. Although the number of students who plan to study abroad in the Spring has not yet been finalized, the total is expected to be around 70, said Amanda Kelso, executive director of the Global Education Office for Undergraduates.
But such a notable asymmetry between the semesters’ numbers is not necessarily ideal, she said.
Out of balance
“For years, we’ve been trying to change the imbalance from within the Global Education Office,” Kelso wrote in an email Tuesday.
She added that the Office has tried tactics such as starting new semester programs only in the Spring and has discussed offering extra Spring excursions or developing financial incentives to make Spring enrollments more attractive.
Such efforts, she noted, are not likely to have a huge impact.
“What we really need is a campus-wide approach to solving the imbalance, because a culture has grown up around the assumption that a good portion of the junior class will be abroad each Fall,” Kelso wrote. “For instance, departments avoid offering core junior classes in the Fall, rush is in the Spring, most internship assistance is geared towards students being on campus in the Spring.”
Many students say that the decision to go abroad in the Fall instead of the Spring is a result of simply following the campus norm.
“I think that most Duke students choose to just go in the Fall because the idea on campus is that you just go in your junior Fall rather than for the whole year or the Spring,” said senior Leilani Doktor, who studied abroad in Paris in the Fall of her junior year. “Students feel a lot of pull back to Duke, and that might have to do with sports culture and basketball, but it also just may be that Duke social culture is really appealing.”
Of the 505 students abroad this semester, 97 percent are juniors, Kelso said. The most popular destinations are Madrid, London, Sydney and Paris.
The disparity between students abroad in the Fall and Spring is not a problem that is unique to Duke, Kelso noted, adding that most schools experience an imbalance that is the reverse of Duke’s, with more students studying abroad in the Spring.
“Some of the northern schools tell me it’s because of weather—that students would rather spend the spring semester abroad than brave the snow of Ithaca, for instance,” Kelso wrote. “Whatever the reasons over time, like Duke, most schools with a study abroad imbalance have a culture that has built up around having so many students away during a particular semester, so the trend is hard to break.”
Even though a record number of students are going abroad, nearly two-thirds of the class chooses to stay on campus.
Senior Nazia Tabassum said that many factors influenced her decision not to study abroad as a junior.
“I was also a little frightened of being away in a foreign country without my family or friends—it is already scary enough to be living away from my home for college, so living in a foreign country for a whole semester was nerve-wracking,” Tabassum said.
She added that, as an electrical and computer engineering student, she was worried that she would not be able to complete all of the required courses in time to graduate if she studied abroad.
But choosing to stay on campus can have a social impact as well as an academic one.
“Perhaps one of the most difficult issues to address is the social issue—students don’t want to go a whole year without seeing friends and that happens when students are coming and going at different times,” Kelso wrote. “If we want to solve the imbalance we need to look at how to shift culture—student culture and University culture—in a way that students still get to participate in study abroad in Fall or Spring without feeling that they’ll miss out on a key part of the Duke undergraduate experience.”
For many juniors, the result of staying on campus is “almost a left-behind feeling,” said Dean for Residential Life Joe Gonzalez.
The influence on social culture is felt not only when students are away but also when they return, Tabassum noted.
“Duke culture is definitely impacted by abroad trends—in a positive and sometimes negative way,” she said. “Certain people tend to think that just because they have gone abroad for one semester that they have seen the entire world—they tend to quote their experience as if it can explain all of the world’s issues.”
Others, she noted, use the experience to truly open their eyes to life outside of the United States.
Many juniors feel that they are asked to choose between taking a leadership role in their student groups and studying abroad, noted Doktor, Duke Student Government vice president for social culture.
“For student groups, studying abroad definitely makes a big impact because many of their juniors are people who were going to be leadership and they tend to leave, so it kind of leaves a gap,” Doktor said. “I have definitely have noticed that many groups tend to program less in the Fall, and then you see much more robust programming in the Spring.”
As students return to campus from being abroad during the Fall, Housing, Dining and Residence Life must find housing for them.
“The potential impacts of having so many students abroad really mirror the impacts that we face every year,” Gonzalez said. “The reality with on-campus housing and the study abroad patterns is that there is always a difference between the number of students returning and number of beds we have available for them.”
As a result of this discrepancy, a select number of juniors returning from abroad are allowed to live off campus, he added.
Students who are studying abroad fill out requests for Spring housing and can mark a preference to be granted off-campus housing, removing them from the typical six-semester on-campus living requirement. Gonzalez said that typically between 75 and 100 requests for off-campus housing are granted.
The first round of students are notified in mid-November that they have been granted off-campus housing—giving them ample time to find apartments or houses, noted MJ Williams, director of housing assignments and planning.
“When you apply for the lottery, it is not a guarantee, we can’t all win the PowerBall,” said Linda Moiseenko, assistant director of housing assignments and community housing.
She noted that in some past years, only one out of every five students that applied to live off-campus was granted that request.
Since the implementation of the new housing model, the location of the spaces that tend to be open for returning juniors to fill has shifted. The majority of openings before were on Central Campus, whereas most open beds now are in Edens Quadrangle, Gonzalez said.
“One of the quandaries that we considered when we implemented Duke houses was this particular situation—where we have a lot of students that go abroad in the Fall and come back in the Spring—and ideally, they would go back to the houses they had as a sophomore,” Gonzalez said. “The numbers don’t allow for that, and we knew that going in.”
He added that although it is not a guarantee that students can go back to their previous houses, the Office does their best to place as many students as possible in their sophomore houses.
“It’s a difficult situation for housing because there are so many empty beds in the Fall, and empty beds mean a loss of revenue,” Kelso wrote. “It’s also difficult for some halls to build a sense of community in the Fall when half the population doesn’t show until January.”
Williams noted that when assigning Spring housing, administrators must consider situations beyond those of students returning from abroad—including students returning from leaves of absence, students who graduate after Fall semester and Robertson Scholars who are leaving or returning to campus.
The top priority is to be sure that every bed in selective living groups is filled, Williams said, adding that the lottery is formed after these sections are completely full.m
“We have a pretty good idea of how many vacancies we will have,” she said. “Our goal is to fill every bed space we have and to get as many students on campus as we possibly can.”