Naa Ammah-Tagoe, Harvard College Class of 2010 and Harvard Graduate School of Education Class of 2013 (expected)
It’s been four months since you got into Harvard. Four months to scream, celebrate, pinch yourself, and practice dropping the H-bomb. In this foretaste of the next four years, you’ve done the research, made the visits, read the websites, and talked to students and alumni alike.
That thoughtfulness and attention to detail will still serve you well, but it’s time to take a deep breath. You will have time to take advantage of everything Harvard offers in Cambridge. But there’s a little secret that few people will come out and say: as a Harvard undergraduate you can’t afford not to study abroad. Here’s why:
Advantage #1. It will give you an edge over your peers.
Let’s be practical: that’s part of the reason you said yes to Harvard. You’re about to surround yourself with 6, 400 hard-working, brilliant, and unique peers, and studying abroad will help you distinguish yourself.
At Harvard and beyond, people with significant international experience stand out. Whether you’re a U.S. citizen without a passport or an international student, a religion concentrator or premed, you will benefit from living abroad. Professors, future employers, grad school admissions officers, and even future friends appreciate the credibility earned only by spending time in another country. That’s because they know you’ll be an asset with advantage #2:
Advantage #2. You’ll gain valuable insight about your skills, desires, goals and yourself.
Cross-cultural immersion forces you to assess your abilities, knowledge, assumptions and lifestyle preferences in a way nothing else can. You’ll learn how to learn, analyze, and lead in a profoundly different way. My first three months in Paris did more good for my French than eight years of study could; by the time I left Sciences Po most of the French people would have sworn I was a native speaker. I encountered the best aspects of the French educational system, as well as top students from universities around the world. Upon my return, I was better practiced in building relationships with professors and experimenting with new coursework and extracurricular experiences; these newfound skills helped me enjoy my senior year.
When you think about studying abroad, consider semester or year-long experiences in addition to summer offerings. Not only will the additional time make you and your experiences more unique (hello, #1!), it will also allow you time to truly integrate into, not merely observe, the new culture. Believe me, four months is barely enough time as it is to grapple with everything you’ll learn, and…
Advantage #3. You will never regret the experience.
In fact, you’d more likely regret not going now. What better time to explore the world than when you’re young and relatively carefree, with teams of professionals offering guidance and a university supporting your experience? If those practical benefits don’t convince you, maybe the romance of it will. And with the bonds you’ll build, you’ll be in for lifelong friendships and adventures too.