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So far, yet so close: Study away students reflect on unique experiences

February 16, 2024

Courtesy of Terry Zhang
JUST OUTSIDE OF BOSTON: Terry Zhang '24 took an alternative path to studying away from campus: being a Harvard University student for a semester.

Every fall and spring, Bowdoin students trade their OneCards for plane tickets as they study away from campus en masse. However, a small but significant cohort of these students—around four percent—choose to study away from Bowdoin a little closer to home: in the continental United States.

Far away, yet close to home 

Last fall, as many Bowdoin students flew into Boston to catch the Amtrak to Brunswick, Terry Zhang ’24 didn’t join them. Instead, he headed to his newly leased apartment in Cambridge. Zhang spent last semester studying away at Harvard University.

Zhang, a Government & Legal Studies and economics student, participated in Harvard’s Visiting Undergraduate Students Program. He completely immersed himself in crimson, taking classes in Harvard lecture halls alongside Harvard students.

Zhang heard about the program from a friend who had participated in it previously. As an international student, Zhang said he was attracted to the sense of familiarity that he believed the program could provide him.

“It’s not a big program, and you really get to know a lot of people there,” Zhang said. “I’m familiar with the system here in the U.S., but [Harvard] was a different experience because of the larger classes.… [Y]ou get a lot more choices if you’re interested in something very specific that isn’t covered by Bowdoin’s classes.”

The classes he took, which he characterized as being as challenging as Bowdoin’s, filled up his time most of the day.

“It was a lot of work. When I was in the thick of it, I really wanted to get out, but after it’s all done, I reflect back and I’m really proud of what I did,” Zhang said.

Zhang’s time at Harvard wasn’t all spent in the classroom, however. On and off campus, he found his community in one of Harvard’s consulting pre-professional groups. He also bonded with his roommates throughout the semester and even went to an Eagles concert with them at TD Garden in Boston. One of his fondest memories is a pizza and video game night with his roommates, one of whom was a Bowdoin alum and Harvard graduate student.

Courtesy of Sebastian Perez
POLAR BEAR TO GRIZZLY: Sebastian Perez '25 studied away at the University of California, Berkeley to get a more research-focused experience in chemistry.

Similar to Zhang, Sebastian Perez ’24 heard about his study away opportunity from an upperclassman. After learning about the opportunity to be a chemistry visiting scholar at one of the best public research universities in the nation, Perez instantly grew eager to spend his junior fall at UC Berkeley.

A chemistry major, Perez hopes to continue on to graduate school in the field after Bowdoin. Initially, Perez was intrigued by UC Berkeley’s graduate school admissions priority for students who participated in the program, but he also gained valuable support for entering a future career as a chemist beyond his initial expectations for the program.

“I think that was pretty interesting for me to make more connections in the chemistry field, get to know more about possible graduate opportunities and also just to network with other faculty that are consequential,” Perez said. “The chemistry field is kind of small. It’s a pretty niche community. And that’s something that my lab professor [at Bowdoin] had talked about.”

Living off campus in a house with both international and domestic students, Perez was able to find community, which he says isn’t easy at the 33,000-undergraduate student school. While Perez noted that Bowdoin works hard to forge community amongst its population of under 2,000, UC Berkeley operates entirely differently.

Perez described the student body as much more competitive than that of Bowdoin. The campus norm that clubs are all application-based provides a salient example of this; according to Perez, this application process usually prioritizes students from wealthier backgrounds or those with more experience before college.

“That was one thing that I didn’t enjoy. It kind of made it hard to integrate myself into [the student body], and also the social life of students is determined by the clubs that are interesting. If you’re not in a club by your sophomore year, a lot of students get lost in how to navigate and have more well-rounded socializing,” Perez said.

In terms of the academics, Perez said his courses were challenging and niche.

“They were intense, but I think the content they covered was phenomenal,” Perez said.

While he said he would do it again (though maybe in a program with more course flexibility), Perez noted his excitement to be back on campus.

“I think I gained a greater appreciation for Bowdoin after that experience, so I was pretty excited to come back,” Perez said. “The pace of life over there’s so fast, like you’re constantly moving, but coming back here, things kind of slow down; you have a chance to breathe.”

Oliver Wang ’24, like Zhang and Perez, also studied away in the U.S. His off-campus journey took him from the small town of Brunswick to the U.S.’s largest city, New York, to study at Columbia University. As an aspiring chemistry doctoral student like Perez, Wang was attracted to the school’s research-focused course offerings—something he didn’t think he’d find in European study abroad programs.

“A lot of big universities are much more research-focused. That’s something I know, rather than somewhere in Europe I have no knowledge about,” Wang said. “I got a lot of exposure to the field of chemistry that I wouldn’t have been able to get here.”

When he was in New York, Wang found time to explore the city in between classes, whether it was taking the subway or riding his bike through Central Park (before the blistering New York winter, of course). Wang said that he especially remembers going to a Chinese New Year parade in Chinatown, where he found respite from the chemistry workload.

“They were setting off thousands of fireworks, and there were close to 1,000 people there,” Wang said. “Having the experience at both campuses—a small liberal arts college and a big research university—was something very fortunate.”

Go UPioneers?

Courtesy of Eléna Zytnicki
NEW BEAR IN TOWN: Instead of traveling to Europe, Smith College student Eléna Zytnicki decided to come to another liberal arts college and found herself at Bowdoin.

While her friends are studying abroad in Copenhagen and New Zealand, Eléna Zytnicki chose to spend her semester away less than 230 miles north of her college. A Smith College junior, Zytnicki was looking for an opportunity to study away while still fulfilling the requirements for her neuroscience major. When she found the 12-College Exchange Program, she sent in her application and eventually got her own Bowdoin email.

Bowdoin typically hosts one incoming 12-College Exchange Program student per year, which was interrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Zytnicki is the first to study away at Bowdoin since the pandemic began.

Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Zytnicki finds Brunswick oddly familiar.

“A saying I’ve kind of come back to a bit here is that Maine is almost like the Pacific Northwest of the East Coast. There’s a lot of outdoors and the proximity to the coastline is huge,” Zytnicki said.

Smith is similar to Bowdoin in its small, liberal arts education, but a few key details separate the two beyond geography. While Smith is a historically women’s college, Bowdoin only started admitting women in 1971. While Smith is one of five colleges in a consortium, Bowdoin stands alone, with the closest peer institution, Bates College, being a 30-minute drive away in Lewiston.

“I really enjoyed the liberal arts as an academic curriculum,” she said. “So I was like, I think it’d be interesting to kind of see that and also, Maine seems like a really pretty state and a part of the U.S. I haven’t explored.”

When Zytnicki arrived at Bowdoin at the start of the spring semester, she had to Google the location of Brunswick Apartments. During the snowstorm two weeks ago, she didn’t receive the email alerting campus to the Brunswick town parking ban. After her car was towed, Zytnicki reached out to her dean, who, after apologizing profusely, made delayed but appreciated contact with her.

“There was kind of a lack of support in that sense with the administration, which they have since acknowledged, and are working toward better support and stuff going forward. So in that sense, it’s definitely a rough first few weeks,” Zytnicki said. “But now I’m walking around campus, and I feel like I can say hi to people and be like, ‘Hey, you’re from class, do you want to go study?’ or something like that.”

In Brunswick Apartments, and in her photo class, Zytnicki has found community and joy through her kitchen.

“Smith doesn’t have a lot of upper-class housing. So I feel like as a junior, being able to live in an apartment is a big thing. I’m really glad I’m able to do that this semester,” she said. “A few weeks ago I was like, ‘Oh, I’ll make cookies for photo class!’”

For Zytnicki, new to Bowdoin and Brunswick, several quirks of the College drew her in.

“There’s a lot of fun little differences—I feel like for one I’ve never heard of students emailing about parties. That’s a       crazy thing to me; it feels very much like Evite a little bit,” Zytnicki said.

While Smith College has many small dining halls, Bowdoin’s two larger dining halls are social hubs that Zytnicki hadn’t previously experienced.

“Going into Thorne, for example, it’s just like a ton of noise. Like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is crazy. It’s huge.’ It’s a little bit overwhelming, but it’s also kind of cool. You see everyone’s chatting,” Zytnicki said.

To her, the prevalence of the phrase “let’s grab a meal” is new and central to her Bowdoin experience.

Soon, Bowdoin students may be finding their way on new campuses across the U.S., as Wang, Perez and Zhang recommend.

“Living in a bigger city, you’re closer to everything that’s happening. At Bowdoin, we talk about current events—things that are happening—but it still feels a bit distant,” Zhang said. “[Off campus] it feels like you’re closer to it.”


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