Frank Broomell: Toughen up on study abroad academics

Everyone who goes abroad knows about culture shock, but returning home also offers its own speed bumps.

My study abroad program had a re-entry workshop designed to prepare us for when we returned to America. What they didn’t really tell us is that the real culture shock happens not right when your airplane lands, but when you get back to your home college the next semester, especially as you turn toward exams in December.

When I came back from studying abroad, I did not return to my normal life right away. Instead, my shift was so extreme and quick that I did not experience much traditional culture shock on my return. Just a week after routinely having dinner at nine, staying out till 4:30 a.m. and living in a relaxed Italian culture, I was down at Officer Candidate School with lights out at nine, waking up at 4:30 a.m and going through training.

A huge difference for sure, but I simply did not have time to think about – or care about – the differences between Rome and the Marine Corps Base at Quantico, Va.

The culture shock finally caught up with me and hit me pretty hard upon my return to GW. I had to do real class work again? Readings? Papers? And now with exams coming up, the differences from study abroad are stark. Many study abroad programs are a joke academically, and mine was no different.

Sure, there were exams, but they were relatively simple and no one was losing sleep to cram for them. Papers were three to five pages maximum and could easily be done the night before, and for most classes the readings were light.

Now, I feel like an incoming freshman again, with the suddenly crushing workload. Add in some senioritis, and grades are sure to suffer a bit. It seems like this shock has hit almost every upperclassman returning from study abroad last spring. Is there anything GW can do to help future abroad students?

GW can and should push the programs it works with to increase the difficulty of the classes. In my program, several things were added because our universities back home required them. GW can reach out to other schools and work with them to see that study abroad programs ask for a little more from their students.

On its own, GW can also encourage its students to do more. GW should advise students to take at least one of the tougher courses that their programs offer, so they can avoid enrolling in five joke classes. The Office for Study Abroad should point out the tougher programs, like the London School of Economics, in students’ countries of interest and encourage them to study there. There is also the option of assigning a comprehensive project due upon return that students can incorporate into their abroad experience.

Now I’m not saying that all abroad programs are a piece of cake. Some are quite difficult. Also, a student’s semester or year abroad should not be the most challenging of their academic career. The experience of being abroad is important in itself. Students should be able to involve themselves in the local culture and visit the different cities and countries nearby. You never know when you will be able to make it back.

But the bottom line is that there needs to be a balance. While the workload should not be oppressive, it cannot be as easy as it currently is on popular study abroad programs. A slightly tougher workload could help us transition more smoothly back to GW and avoid an academic culture shock.

The writer, a senior majoring in international affairs, is a Hatchet columnist.

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