Every fall, hundreds of students study abroad in the hopes of having an enriching experience in another country. The popularity of Fall study abroad programs, however, affects campus life in unseen ways.
Last week, The Chronicle reported that more students are studying abroad this semester than ever before. Additionally, there is a large disparity in student enrollment between Fall programs and programs in the Spring.
There are several possible explanations for the overwhelming popularity of Fall study abroad programs. Because most juniors choose to study abroad in the Fall, younger students tend to follow the lead of their older peers without thinking critically about which semester is best for them. This produces a self-reinforcing cycle in which rising juniors travel abroad in the Fall simply because it is the general trend year after year.
Students may also prefer studying abroad in the Fall due to the slower pace of campus life during those months. Between basketball, selective group recruitment and a general surge in student-oriented programming like Old Duke and the Last Day of Classes celebration, the spring semester is packed with events that enliven campus. Going abroad in the Fall offers students a way to squeeze in a global experience while returning to campus in time for the large events held later in the year.
Although we have some explanations for the popularity of Fall study abroad programs, the effects of this trend remain less clear. Juniors who do not go abroad have to deal with the absence of many of their friends and classmates, and students who do go abroad return to campus with different experiences and attitudes. Re-entering campus life after being abroad changes how students perceive their time on campus in profound ways.
The disparity between Fall and Spring study abroad rates also impacts housing. The housing model is meant to create a strong sense of inter-class community for students living in residential houses. If, however, houses lack a significant number of juniors in the Fall, it is difficult for students to develop a coherent community. Furthermore, space constraints on campus force many students to live off-campus after returning from study abroad. Few are likely to return to residence halls at the beginning of their senior year. The absence of juniors and seniors from houses threatens communal bonds and suggests that the study abroad experience and goals of the housing model may conflict with each other.
Their aims are not mutually exclusive, however. Although large numbers of students opting out of the housing model could have a negative effect on residential communities, it does not mean that the housing model is doomed.
Study abroad allows students to develop a sense of independence that can be difficult to find on campus. For many juniors, the study abroad experience changes how they think about their Duke experience, and it marks the beginning of a move to more self-sufficient living.As the residential experience becomes increasingly important in setting brick-and-mortar universities apart from online colleges, we will have to determine whether Duke’s study abroad system contributes to or detracts from the sense of community the University hopes to cultivate.