Although the COVID-19 world can sometimes make us feel isolated, the pandemic has also forced us to recognize our role as part of a global environment and reinforced the importance of cross-cultural communication and collaboration. One lesson learned from the pandemic should be the essential role of study abroad. Bowdoin should ensure every student has the funding to make this possible.
Studying abroad is a life-changing experience for any student. According to research by the Institute of International Education (IIE), study abroad “contributes to the development of transferable skills and positive employment gains” by developing critical proficiencies such as communication, confidence, self-awareness and problem-solving. Study abroad forces students to enter a different environment with a leap of faith, but in these differences comes both personal and academic growth. New friends are made, new cultures are engaged and world perspective is changed forever. Still, only about 10 percent of U.S. higher education students study abroad during their academic careers. This is detrimental to our society amidst an increasingly connected world. While 55 percent of every Bowdoin class studies away in ordinary times, we can still raise these numbers.
The biggest barrier to short-term study abroad is funding. Bowdoin students on financial aid, nearly half of all enrolled students, can only use their aid for semester-long programs. Short-term programs, whether in the summer or over winter break, cannot be funded by financial aid because Bowdoin is only accredited for its two-semester annual schedule. Bowdoin does not offer its own summer courses, and unlike its Maine NESCAC peers Bates and Colby, Bowdoin does not offer anything like a “J-term” or “short-term.” Although accreditation is a complicated issue regardless of study abroad, having only two accredited semesters puts Bowdoin at a competitive disadvantage with some of its NESCAC peers, at least when it comes to financial aid flexibility.
The typical semester-long abroad experience can be impossible for students with on-campus work obligations or majors such as the pre-med track that require laboratory courses not always available abroad. U.S. State Department data reflects this problem, since 60 percent of students now study abroad on programs less than eight weeks long. Recognizing these issues in combination with the profound importance of study abroad programs, funding should be available for short-term programs when students can present why the typical semester-long program is not feasible. In addition, lack of funding for short-term programs disadvantages aid-eligible students from their peers. Many students need to work summer jobs, so the idea of paying for an additional short-term program is unachievable. Study abroad has a certain stigma of privilege attached to it, which although not unjustified, should instead be a rallying cry to make it accessible to more students.
Thankfully, Bowdoin has a long and beneficial relationship with private donors and establishing meaningful programs. Take the Bowdoin Public Service Initiative, for example. Started in 2017, the program has become one of the most unique opportunities at Bowdoin, giving students “several pathways to explore the complex, fascinating—and for many, very rewarding—field of public service.” The program provides funding for government internships in Washington, D.C., as well as in Maine, which are often great internships, albeit unpaid.
The program was started with private donor funding and has continued to receive more as the program’s success continues, including a recent $150,000 grant from The Hearst Foundation, Inc. Clearly, Bowdoin has a demonstrated history of marshaling its community and other private funding sources to provide students with important opportunities. Short-term study abroad deserves similar consideration.
If Bowdoin needs further incentive to begin funding short-term abroad programs, national attention is finally turning towards the importance of study abroad. Although gridlock may seem the current norm in Washington, D.C., there is increased hope that the incoming Biden administration could endorse the Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Act. A bill with bipartisan support, the proposed Study Abroad Act would “expand study abroad opportunities for undergraduate students” through competitive grants, with an increased focus on diversity and studying in nontraditional destinations. This is a fantastic endorsement of the importance of study abroad, but it should not signal that Bowdoin can simply wait and see.
Bowdoin, as a leading liberal arts institution, places a premium on the common good and supporting students from all backgrounds as part of creating a more inclusive society. At a time in history when relationships are fraying and communities are increasingly suspicious of each other, study abroad represents a critical opportunity to improve understanding and empathy. The time has come to be a trailblazer in higher education and fix an unnecessary wrong. By funding short-term study abroad programs, Bowdoin would better fulfill its stated Mission of the College to develop students’ “depth of knowledge, an independent capacity to learn, mental courage, self-discipline, tolerance of and interest in differences of culture and belief, and a willingness to serve the common good and subordinate self to higher goals.”
Justin Winschel is a member of the Class of 2021