When I read in a recent Spectator article about the November dismissal of School of Engineering and Applied Science study abroad coordinator, Regine Lambrech, I was somewhat surprised: Columbia engineers actually study abroad?
In the article, Dean Feniosky Peña-Mora states that the program is “in transition,” and changes such as the elimination of Lambrech’s position have been necessary to make studying abroad possible for more than the 1 percent of engineers who went overseas this academic year. As stated in the article, part of his plan includes shifting from spring and fall study abroad programs to excursions during summer and winter breaks.
Were such a restructuring to happen in Columbia College, the uproar would be tremendous. Advising offices would be inundated with indignant emails, and Facebook groups would arise in the violent rhetoric of passive protest. Not only do many of my classmates consider an international stint an important component to rounding out an elite liberal arts experience, but it is even strongly encouraged by some majors. But within the SEAS community, the news hardly seems to have registered. Part of this may be due to the small minority of students who have even given the office any serious thought, reflecting the fatalistic attitude quickly developed in response to the rigid SEAS curriculum. If a student were to go abroad, he would have to ensure that he could take high-level courses, possibly in another language, and that any coursework would count toward Columbia credit. According to the “Study Abroad Options for SEAS Students” brochure, the undergraduate program currently has only three partner schools with which credit transfer is guaranteed. However, if you can’t “parler français” with the big boys, then that list shrinks down to one.
Dean Peña-Mora’s dream of at least increasing the number of summer programs is certainly a commendable move toward the Office of Global Initiatives and Education’s “mission to train globally competent engineers” and “stimulate the international flow of ideas...” The SEAS Global Initiatives and Education’s site offers a small but diverse list of internships abroad, many of which are paid and some of which offer language training as well. However, the dean’s alternate suggestion of week-long “Global Exploration” programs seems somewhat suspect. A week is a vacation. A week is just enough time to get over jet lag, populate a few Facebook albums with exotic sightings, and learn a few phrases to impress foreign industry bigwigs. Although any kind of trip outside the country could be exciting, this hardly seems like an opportunity for engineers to significantly broaden their global perspectives. In addition, since these shorter programs are not part of the fall or spring semester, students who normally qualify for financial aid are probably on their own when it comes to funding their trips.
Alas, the life of the globally inclined SEAS student is not an easy one. With less flexibility, most do not really give going abroad much serious thought, and the few that manage to do so every academic year are the overwhelming exceptions.
Uneducated as I am in the ways of the Fu Foundation, I wonder how many students take advantage of another opportunity: the leave of absence. As part of a “Change of Status” option, SEAS students are authorized to take up to two semesters off from academic studies. This might be the perfect opportunity to get to know the streets of Paris like you’ve always wanted to, or enroll in a study abroad program not approved by Columbia. On leave, everything is fair game, and furthermore, there is no pressure for credits.
And if one of the goals of studying abroad is gaining a new perspective, maybe Dean Peña-Mora should consider developing a visiting student program. Every year Columbia College enrolls several students from other American universities for up to one year of study. SEAS offers a somewhat similar program for incoming students with its “Combined Plan” option, but it is not clear how keen it is on allowing its own students to explore the option. A network of interschool engineering programs may not be global, but with several great resources across the nation, it would be an excellent and academically practical opportunity for SEAS students to have a different experience.
I’m not sure if most SEAS students have even realized there was a problem. These may very well be suggestions to a question never asked. When it comes down to it, studying abroad (or even somewhere else in the country) should not be a luxury reserved only for humanities majors. But there doesn’t seem to be an easy solution to combining a rigorous workload with a global experience. So to Dean Peña-Mora and the SEAS student body, I take off my beanie in solidarity and wish you the best of luck.
Derek Arthur is a Columbia College sophomore. Shining Bright Blue runs alternate Tuesdays.