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Princeton Wants to Send Students Abroad - Even Before College

Warning: Long, boring, intolerant, opinionated, and incoherent!

Yesterday, the New York Times posted an article about Princeton: Princeton Plans for an Early Year Abroad. In short, Princeton wants to send about ten percent of its students abroad for a year of social service - before they even start college. According to the university's president, the program "would give students a more international perspective, add to their maturity and give them a break from academic pressures."

In theory, this sounds good, and many of the commenters praise the idea. Many students, especially in Europe, already take a "gap year" between finishing secondary school and starting university, and some feel that more Americans should do this. In general, American parents have been less likely to encourage this as they tend to pay big money for their children's education, and they want to make sure that the students finish college before taking off on adventures. However, many American students do study abroad for shorter amounts of time, often a summer or one semester. (Raise your hand if you have met drunk students in Florence! And of all nationalities, I might add.)

While I do agree that exposure to foreign cultures is a great thing, I have A LOT of problems with this particular idea. Most commenters seemed positive, although some expressed reservations. For instance, some felt the students should spend time doing service in the US instead, others felt the program would be too expensive, or that the kids would be too young, or that it would add to the already heavy load that high school kids take on in order to be accepted at an Ivy League college.

I didn’t read all 500 comments but of the ones I read, only a few had the same reservations that I have. My main one is: exactly who is being helped here? While I am all for serving others, I feel that these kind of programs exist much more for the young Westerners than for the people they are supposed to serve. This becomes much more obvious when there are a large group of people doing it together. If one person goes alone, that person can usually be accommodated easily enough. With a larger group (and especially one from a lawsuit-happy country), there has to be a lot of support arrangements in place – potable water, decent accommodations, interpreters… It becomes an industry in itself.

And while the young person’s eyes will certainly be opened to the challenges of the “third world”, what exactly will he or she do? At 18, they are not exactly agricultural extension workers, or trained nurses, or engineers, to name a few useful professions. Yes, they can play with children or help teach English, but at this point, I feel that the cost of having them there far exceeds their usefulness – and if the money they, and the university, spend on such a program, was invested in the community instead, it would have a far greater impact. In my totally not humble opinion, of course! Even Peace Corps members, who are generally in their twenties, college educated, highly motivated, and trained in the local language, do sometimes find it hard to stay busy – I have met Peace Corpsers in Central America who were literally going from organization to organization asking if they could help. (In between some heavy drinking, in my experience – probably not something the Princeton folks would want…)

(A lot of my feelings on this come from my interactions with foreigners on “mission trips.” In all my years traveling to Central America I have come to deeply distrust the “mission trip”. A “mission trip” is an often short trip, taken by a group of (most often) Americans to a poor country, often Central America. Often the group will help build a church, or a house, or take on some other projects. For many people, this is their first exposure to a poorer country. In theory, a good idea – people helping people. However, I have witnessed, countless times, that these trips cross over from social justice to charity. I have also seen too many people complain about the food, or the lack of hot water, or uncomfortable beds, or bugs, or… It also irks me to watch people raise money for their own airfare and stay. The cost of airfare and accommodations for 25 people would feed a lot of people or buy a lot of bricks for a school building! Once again, it becomes about the Westerner as a giver, and the poorer person as a charity recipient.)

Back to the Princeton program. It also worries me that this is going to be a program organized by the school, because it becomes so much more accessible. Why is that a problem? It might be a good thing, allowing more people this experience. However, if it becomes very easy to participate, people who may not be ready for the experience will go. Living and working in a developing country is not an easy experience, and it is important that the individual is 100% committed and that he or she is mentally prepared. I honestly believe that a person who has to do all the legwork themselves will be better prepared, and that the ones who are not ready to do the legwork might be better served by a study abroad program in a Western country.

I was talking to someone who did not agree with my stand on this, who argued that the benefits of the exposure would outweigh the negatives, and that a full year is enough to actually be useful. I see the other side as well, but I still believe that a gap year should be a personal experience planned by the individual, not an organized pre-freshman program.

To conclude: the people who would enter this Princeton program are probably the same that would get this experience anyway, whether it be through study abroad, Peace Corps, or in other ways. If we really want to open the eyes of ordinary Americans, or Swedes, or Italians, I think we need to take very different steps.

I allow myself to conclude with a quote from one of the people who commented on the original article:

While it is generally a good idea to expose young Americans to the world, it is a bit preposterous to send high-schoolers to help those in need abroad. Whom are we helping here? The people abroad who need money and perhaps expert advice? American high schoolers who have been pushed too far too soon by either themselves or their society?

Having been in the study-abroad 'business' for many years, I begin to notice an odd perversion. As massive groups of Americans study abroad, they no longer meet the foreign culture as individuals, but as groups with their own dynamics. The foreign country in this context becomes a sort of playground which corroborates one's own cultural values rather than helping one broaden one's outlook. In the 'good old days,' students went abroad to Europe or other continents after some years of language study to learn from foreign cultures. Now they go to 'teach' or have a good time (not mutually exclusive) and all of this will now be offered in a clean, safe, supervised environment -- an improved version of the summer camp.

I do not doubt that the experience will be meaningful for most students, I only hope that such a program will not replace the true, individual grappling with cultural otherness by a McForeignCulture experience which looks like the real thing, but isn't.
— E. Kuhn-Osius, New York

Comments (3)

I agree with your take on this. While I like the idea of a gap year (and wish I'd taken one myself), I think it's better to take it mid-way rather than at the beginning. I kind of think that 18-year olds (in America anyway) need to go on to college, get the partying out of their system, and then take a gap year to re-group.

And you are right - what skills do 18-years have to offer anyway?


Ok, this was none of the things you warned about in the title! I thought it very well thought out and presented. You make some great points. I especially agree with the fact that students travelling en masse are unlikely to benefit from the exposure to other cultures the same way that individual travellers might. I also agree with Annie's comment that better to get the partying over with before going off to "help" others!

Thanks for reading guys! I had a hard time saying what I felt, namely that while I think it is great that people want to serve and experience other cultures, I feel that this program is all about the kids, not about those they are supposed to serve.

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