Back to SummaryKelly Vicars - Student Profile
I was accepted, and before I knew it I was stepping out of a plane onto French soil under gray, wintry skies to begin what would be my greatest experience at Stanford thus far. I could not be more thankful that I decided to go to Paris, and especially that I went when I did. It was opportune for so many reasons: it was an exciting adventure during the year that for many Stanford students is the most difficult; it gave me incredible perspective on my academic interests, my major, and myself; and I returned to campus ready and eager to engage in the world-class university that I could truly appreciate after having seen a bit more of the world it was a part of.
Because Stanford culture dictates that students wait until junior year to study abroad, I feel compelled to relate my experience in hopes of arguing that students need not wait. I think that sophomore year may actually be the best time to go abroad, and freshmen and sophomores should think seriously about the possibility of going “early.” Here is why:
1) Sophomore year is full of questions. This is when we really start to interrogate ourselves about our true interests and decide upon a major, a choice that may well influence future careers and interests down the road. First and foremost, it is a time for deep reflection on what we, as students and as people, really care about and want to spend our time doing (and if it isn’t that, than it should be). Sitting through large, introductory lectures on campus may give you a long menu of paths to choose from, but all those options can be terribly overwhelming. Sophomore year is notoriously tedious for good reason. I certainly struggled under pressure to choose a major, and I felt lost within the crowds of sophomores vying for the attention of professors in big classes. Going abroad plucked me out of that environment and threw me into a completely new one, that, while it came with its own set of challenges (navigating the dark and foreign metro system, for one!) was incredibly refreshing. It was great because it forced me to make sense of it of it all.
Trying to communicate in a foreign language, observing a very different culture, debating international politics with classmates at tiny cafés – all these things forced me to confront myself and my beliefs. I’ll be honest – before leaving for Paris, I had no CLUE what I wanted to major in or do with my life. But the challenges I faced overseas affirmed some important things about myself, and opened my eyes to even more. I didn’t find all the “answers” there. But I definitely came away with greater confidence about the road ahead.
2) Who you go abroad with is important to think about. One of the great things about the fact that “only juniors go abroad” is that in Paris I was indeed surrounded by juniors. I didn’t know a single person when I arrived, and I had an amazing time getting to know my 35 new classmates. I could tell that many of them already knew, or knew of, some of the others, and groups formed from the get-go, But for me, the process was exciting and organic - it was awesome not having pre-conceived notions of the others, and getting to know them in our new, exciting city together.
Obviously, traveling with your best friends can be a blast. But it’s worth considering the fact that as a junior going abroad, you’re likely to know the majority of the people in your group. I’ll argue that there is a lot to be gained by entering into an experience where you can make great new friends in an amazing new place. There is a lot to be learned from the people on your program, as well. (Another advantage to being among juniors was the invaluable advice I received about classes and majors and professors. Seriously, it rocked.)
3) Paradoxically, being away from Stanford makes you appreciate it even more. We hear all the time that Stanford is a world-class university. But in order to truly understand what that means, you need to have seen some of the world. I came back from Paris very thankful, and very impressed, by the university we are lucky enough to attend. In part it was due to the academic environment in Paris, where the classes were on very interesting, specific topics; and felt intimate, with only the 35 people on the program alltogether. It was the academic experience I had always craved at Stanford – small classroom full of students from many different backgrounds and majors engaged in discussing and learning about engaging topics. It was great, and it motivated me to seek out that kind of learning when I came back to campus in the spring. I returned to the Farm enlivened and ready to engage in all it offered. I was glad I hadn’t waited three-quarters of the way in to find that out.
To be sure, studying abroad does come with its own set of challenges. Living closely with a host family or in a house with a new group of students is very different from dorm life. Navigating a big city can be trying, and being so far away from home can be hard. But the challenges are what make studying abroad an adventure, and an accomplishment. For sophomores who are prepared for the experience of living in a foreign country and who are hungering for a change, I argue that there is no better time to go than sophomore year. It made a world of difference for me, and I think more Stanford students should consider going abroad as a way to make sophomore year fun, and gain very valuable insight on, well, everything.