International Immersion: Checking in with Students Studying Abroad

Students participating in off-campus programs share how their experiences away from Hanover are adding to their college experience.

by Brian Zheng | 1/26/22 2:15am

Source: Courtesy of Aditi Gupta

Amid the global surge in the omicron variant of COVID-19 this winter, foreign study programs — a hallmark of the Dartmouth experience — are forging ahead, from Paris to Costa Rica. With 13 programs offered this winter, students are taking advantage of an opportunity to broaden their academic experiences in a new environment.

For Fiona Sleigh ’23, who is currently in Madrid on the Spanish Foreign Study Program, studying abroad is an integral part of the Dartmouth experience. 

“I’ve known I wanted to study abroad ever since I was applying to college; it’s something I talked about in my ‘Why Dartmouth’ [essay] because Dartmouth has such a great selection of study abroad programs,” Sleigh said. “I’ve been studying Spanish since middle school, so I knew I wanted it to be something Spanish-related.”

The Madrid FSP was one of the study-abroad programs impacted by last year’s Guarini Institute cuts, shifting its term from the fall to the winter. Despite spending her entire sophomore year living off-campus due to the pandemic, Sleigh, who is a Spanish minor, still felt that the benefits of immersing herself in another country outweighed spending a winter term at Dartmouth.

Apart from the obvious geographical differences, off-campus programs typically have a unique course structure: time in the classroom comprises only a part of the overall academic experience. 

Aditi Gupta ’23, who is currently studying in Oahu, Hawaii on the Anthropology Domestic Study Program, says that while her cohort is learning about Hawaii’s colonial history and values through their Dartmouth faculty member, Professor Zaneta Thayer, and instructors at Tokai International College, much of the academic experience has been centered around the locale itself.

“A lot of the classes are also immersion-based,” Gupta said. “So we’ll go to the forest and learn about the connection between the land and the people, go to a beach cleanup, go to a farm — things like that.”

Even the methods of classroom instruction themselves may differ between courses at Dartmouth and those abroad. Kira Hobson ’23, who is currently studying economics at the University of Oxford’s Keble College as part of the Rockefeller Center’s Dartmouth-Oxford Exchange Program, explains that at Oxford, lecture and seminar classes are nowhere to be found. Instead, instruction happens during tutorials, which are weekly meetings with a faculty member, called a tutor. 

“We write basically a paper every week for each of our classes. We write it ahead of time, submit it to the tutor, and then they’ll ask us questions about it during the class period,” Hobson said. “I’m an econ major, and I’ve never had to write a paper for class. Now, that’s the only assignment I have.”

Sleigh says that she appreciates the shifted focus on foreign study programs, noting that cultural immersion is just as important as any time doing academic work.

“What we’ve been told, and what I’m finding to be the experience, is that for the study abroad program, they recognize that a lot of the learning is taking place outside of the classroom too,” Sleigh said. “They don’t want us to be stuck in our rooms doing homework for six hours a day.”

With hours of newfound free time, students in off-campus programs are making the most of their experience, doing things that they would not be able to do in Hanover. Both Sleigh and Hobson said that traveling is one of the things they are looking forward to most during the term. 

“We have all our Fridays off, so we can go to places like Granada, which we’re going to this weekend, or Barcelona, which we’ll be doing with the program,” Sleigh said. 

Spending all that time in a new environment with new people means that students on off-campus programs often become close with their cohort, bonding through those shared experiences.

“It kind of feels like freshman fall again, almost,” Gupta said. “A lot of us just go together in big groups and go to the beach or to the mall or to grab something to eat. We use a lot of public transportation, so it’s conducive to going in groups.” 

Of course, the global prevalence of the omicron variant has meant that the traditional off-campus experience has, at least partly, been altered, with COVID-19 impacting everything from traveling from city to city to the format of the classes themselves — Hobson, for example, has yet to have an in-person tutorial session. However, with this term’s off-campus programs scattered across the globe, COVID-19 restrictions and customs have varied from country to country.

“The most interesting thing to me is that there’s an outdoor mask mandate [in Madrid], which I don’t think we’ve had in the United States for a while,” Sleigh said. “It is surprising to me that it’s really almost universally followed. Everyone really does wear their masks both outside and inside. It seems from my observations that there’s less pushback to those restrictions.”

Much like on campus, where testing positive for COVID can put a student into isolation for up to ten days, contracting COVID off-campus can mean missing out on classes, travel and immersion.

“I tested positive for COVID the first day I was here, so I had to do the five-day quarantine alone, which was not ideal,” Gupta said. “I’m not the only one that has tested positive since.”

While those on off-campus programs are certainly having fun and learning in a novel setting, there are things that a Dartmouth winter has that study abroad programs cannot replicate — namely, snow. 

“I really miss the skiing,” Sleigh said. “That’s one of my favorite parts about being in Hanover, being able to just dart off to our skiway twenty minutes away and get some runs in. And obviously my friends as well. I love hearing about all the things they are doing on campus, but sometimes I wish I could be there doing those things with them.”

Hobson, too, echoed the sentiment, noting that she missed her friends and skating on Occom Pond. For Gupta, however, Hawaii has provided a welcome change of pace, allowing her to spend time on the beach, which she says she does not often do at home. 

“It’s so cold [in Hanover], and I know there’s a lot of [COVID] cases,” Gupta said. “I’m not missing it right now.”

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