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The Dartmouth
March 4, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Miller: Abroad And At Play

Before the start of fall term, I traveled to Asia for the first time to visit my friend and former roommate in China. The trip was very eye-opening and provided me with the opportunity to see a variety of people, places and cultural elements that I had never experienced. I spent time with students on the Beijing language study abroad program and interacted with them without actually being part of the group, as a sort of third party observer. Much to my surprise, they were living with each other in dorms, not even integrated with the other Chinese students on campus. They also took classes with one another, rather than with the many thousands of Chinese students on campus. It was as though a small piece of Dartmouth had been transplanted in, and yet isolated from, the rest of Beijing.

In retrospect, I have to question the value and planning of the Beijing LSA and hope that it is not a paradigm of the other LSA programs. If the point of this trip is to have students learn to speak Chinese, then why not allow them to interact more with Chinese students rather than trap them in their own little Dartmouth bubble, taking classes just with one another? Why not have them live with host families rather than in a dorm where they may speak English whenever they please? Right now, at least in terms of the classroom and living arrangements — probably the two most important components of the program — the group might as well not be in Beijing at all. Those on the program probably learn marginally more Chinese than if they spent their time on campus.

If LSA aims to teach participants to speak Chinese, then the department of off-campus programs is failing them on many fronts. The program could easily be improved by allowing students to stay with host families, which would force students to speak Chinese on a daily basis. Although I am not familiar with all of the language study abroad programs, I know that at least several allow students to stay with host families. Even if it were impossible to find host families for all of the students, at least let them live in the same dorms as the regular Chinese students. Have them take three classes that are taught in Chinese rather than just two; even if 80 percent of the material were over their heads, this immersion would be better than the current situation.

Additionally, many students view the LSAs as LS “Plays” — 10-week vacations rather than serious academic quarters. If Dartmouth is going to have quality language study abroad programs, then it should maintain the rigor, expectations and quality of the classes in Hanover, and should not simply be a way for students to spend their parents’ tuition dollars (or financial aid tuition dollars) on a term lacking in scholarly challenge. The goal of going abroad should be to learn more than if you had stayed in Hanover, not to avoid the academic work that you would otherwise have on campus.

Considering the enormous gift from former United Nations representative Frank Guarini ’46, who donated $10 million to the College’s off-campus programs, there is tremendous potential for improvement. Before creating additional study abroad programs, Dartmouth should make sure that existing programs meet stringent academic requirements. If the Beijing program epitomizes the broader trend among LSAs, then Dartmouth has a lot of work to do. The issues that I have raised should be paramount when the administration considers how the donation should be spent. Will it be on lavish vacations or actual learning? I would hope for the latter, as this ultimately serves the best interests of the College and those students who are serious about learning new languages and experiencing different cultures.