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Thoughts on abroad: when Bowdoin is your study-away program

November 2, 2018

This past February, during my sophomore spring semester, I decided I wasn’t going to study abroad. Ever since arriving at Bowdoin, studying away for a semester had been on my mind. I’d cycled through a lot of possibilities: minor or major in Spanish and go to Spain or South America, take a semester of Italian and go to Italy, take a biology class and go to Tanzania, take a semester of Greek and do the College Year in Athens. Or, take advantage of my British citizenship and go study somewhere in the United Kingdom.

I romanticized the hell out of studying abroad. I did not limit myself. I wanted to go anywhere and everywhere, regardless of my major. I would have a poetic “Call Me By Your Name” experience where I’d fall in love and come back cultured, but not too cultured, like your typical Bowdoin students returning from being away. (“When I was in Berlin…” “In Amsterdam, everyone’s way more chill…”). If I went to London, I was convinced I’d have a magical experience where I would be able to reclaim the city of my childhood and become the London girl I’d always thought I would have been had I stayed.

After changing my mind countless times, I told my advisor in the Office of Off-Campus Study that I now wanted to go away for the whole year. She asked me why. I couldn’t tell her. I didn’t know. I couldn’t think of a good enough answer.

“Why don’t you come back when you’re feeling a bit more decisive?” she said kindly, closing out of the tab of whatever program I’d been telling her about. In that moment, certainty washed over me. I wasn’t going to get more decisive. I wasn’t going to study abroad.

I remember walking across the quad back to my dorm. It was one of those trick February days between snowfalls, where the ground thaws and the water rises up between blades of grass, forming a puddle each time you take a step. I thought about how this time next year, instead of going abroad for the spring like I’d always planned, I’d be back here, surviving another Bowdoin winter.

Would that really be so bad? I wasn’t sure in that moment. Upperclassmen usually said that abroad was one of the best parts of their Bowdoin experience, that it’s necessary to get a break from Bowdoin. The Offer of the College promises that students will be “at home in all lands,” like the name of this column. Would I be forsaking an essential part of my Bowdoin experience, eventually graduating without ever fulfilling that expectation of every Bowdoin student?

I remember talking to a junior who chose not to go abroad last year, and we bonded over our decision not to go. As a student from a U.S. territory in the Caribbean, she laughed and said, “Oh no, I’m already abroad.”

This is something I’ve been thinking about more and more lately, especially due to our current president’s adamant (and unconstitutional) efforts to further complicate the pathway to American citizenship. Although I’ve lived in the States for the majority of my life, although I came here young enough for my English accent to melt away and be replaced by an American one, although I am more culturally American than I care to admit, I am abroad. I am, for all intents and purposes, an alien, albeit a legal one. I’ve been “abroad” for more than 13 years.

I decided that because I wasn’t going away during my junior year, I was going to find my own “abroad” here on campus. I would make the effort to meet new people. I would really engage in the “Bowdoin hello.” I would make conversation with strangers and give advice and support to first years. I would get off campus more, go to as many concerts in Portland and Boston as I could, see family in London and make the effort to stay in touch more with them instead of completely immersing myself in the Bowdoin bubble.

I’d be more vocal on campus about the things that matter to me and no longer stay silent about the roles race, ethnicity and nationality play in my Bowdoin experience. I wouldn’t give the time of day to trying to fulfill the Bowdoin aesthetic anymore like others do, such as dressing down wealth, engaging in diet activism that is really just a performance and parroting the “Bowdoin is amazing; I have no complaints” myth.

The truth? I do love Bowdoin. I am endlessly grateful that I’ve been able to intentionally explore Maine and its people, feel like a valued member of a small, close-knit campus and be front row to amazing opportunities. The warm relationships with professors I have probably wouldn’t have formed at a larger university. At the same time, I resent the subtext of “at home in all lands.” The truth is, as much as I embrace my multinational identity, it is easier for some people to be “at home in all lands” than it is for others. Namely, students who are not people of color.

I decided not to go abroad for many, many reasons, and I’m happy with my decision. But one part of it was, without a doubt, race. When I was looking at colleges to apply to during high school, I had to consider their location and demographics in weighing how comfortable I would feel there as a mixed black woman.

The same thing came up when considering abroad programs. Did I really want to go abroad to another majority white university and, on top of figuring out a foreign country, somehow find another support system of students of color that I’ve already worked so hard crafting for myself here at Bowdoin? Sure, I could intentionally choose a program somewhere that I knew wouldn’t have that problem, but it’s not fair that I have to make that compromise and others don’t.

The same could be said for life here at Bowdoin. Bowdoin is great, for all of the reasons that we say and more. But it is a lot better for students who are not of color and do not have to navigate the way one’s Bowdoin experience changes when one is Othered or exoticized on a daily basis. Like when people use coded language to tell me how cool I am for being involved in a certain group on campus (just because I’m one of the few black people who do it). Or people who are so surprised that I engage in perfectly ordinary activities that they associate with whiteness, such as skiing or traveling.

Bowdoin is itself a culture shock and abroad experience for so many of my peers here, including students who are from not so far away. As for the challenge “at home in all lands” poses? I’m already living out that challenge just by being here on campus, and so are so many others.

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One comment:

  1. '17 says:

    I stayed at Bowdoin for all eight semesters, and honestly it never really crossed my mind to go abroad. Nothing really spoke to me, and as someone who had only ever lived in large cities, the opportunity to spend four uninterrupted years in Maine felt as unique as the opportunity to travel, if not more so.

    At times it did feel like there was somewhat of a stigma on campus surrounding people who chose not to go abroad, but I’m glad to see that it ultimately hasn’t swayed your logic. In the end, I think I grew more my Junior year than at any other point in my time at Bowdoin. You can travel as far or as near as you like, but growth will always take place between the ears. It sounds to me like you’ve made the right choice!!


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