Just Do It

Meredith Willis

I had a blast on my study abroad. I spent the fall semester in Oxford at University College and stayed with an English family just outside city center. My experience is a little different than that of a total foreigner because I had spent time in Oxford while growing up (my stepdad read Classics there). Regardless, study abroad was a time for me to get to know the city really well and to totally immerse myself in Oxford life and studies. I came out of my experience with new and improved skills and very close friends, both in my Pomona program and those I met through Oxford University.

While there, I really took it upon myself to integrate as fully as possible into the university system, like any fresher would. I joined the rugby team as a total novice, developed a new social circle, travelled around Europe, reacquainted myself with public transport, and rode a bike everywhere. One thing I didn’t anticipate revisiting was how to be a longterm guest in someone else’s home, which I’m glad I experienced. I still keep in touch with my Oxford family and have visited them a couple times since finishing the program.

One of the more memorable moments during study abroad was going on tour to Portugal with Oxford Women’s Rugby Team and Oxford Men’s Rugby League Team. It was four intense days of training, playing rugby, and making long-lasting friendships with people I still talk to and visit. It was an exhausting, exhilarating, and unforgettable experience.

Ultimately after my time there, I felt really comfortable in Oxford and in England. I felt that I could easily move there one day to pursue a career. One of the opportunities I took up as an extracurricular was the Investment and Finance Society, which regularly hosted speakers from Deutsche Bank, Deloitte, etc. After college, I ended up going on a different career path (entertainment), but I learned from my time at Oxford that I had career options outside of my chosen field, if I wanted to explore them. Additionally, I made friends through my extracurriculars and had a place to crash if I wanted to revisit Europe.

Unfortunately, Americans do not have the best reputation abroad; I felt this both while at Oxford and in other European cities I visited. We are often seen as stupid, fat, and gun-toting, no matter your intelligence, appearance, or personal preferences. I felt like I had to constantly be polite and helpful to clear stigma, but on the flip side, I felt a lot of national pride in subtly promoting America abroad through my behavior.

I would recommend that any student studying abroad keep a journal, even if you jot down just a couple lines a day. I wish I had kept a better record of all the unique experiences I had, like going to dinners at various Great Halls at the different colleges, and socializing in the sports-only clubs. I’m forever grateful for my friends at Pomona who swapped letters with me (that we illustrated in rudimentary form) so we kept each other informed about any particularly crazy nights we had in Claremont or our countries abroad.

If I were to impart any wisdom from my experience, I would say to thoroughly research your destination and also your proposed course of study before you design your program. You’ll be there for one or two semesters so you definitely want to be somewhere you’ll enjoy, learning something you’ll enjoy. I ultimately took a tutorial that I feel could have been more effective at Pomona, but nevertheless I still enjoyed my course. Additionally while abroad, try something you’ve always been interested in, like a sport or potential hobby. If you fail at it and totally embarrass yourself, who cares? You’ll be there for like, three months. Go for it.

Taking Charge of Study Abroad

Garrick Monaghan

I approached the study abroad option by thinking long and hard about the unique opportunities it could offer and the outcomes I was looking for, and as a result, my study abroad experience was a bit unconventional. I offer my perspective not because I think my choices are right for everyone, but because I would encourage you to reflect (as we Sagehens do so well) upon your goals before making a decision about where or how to study abroad.

While I spent a semester taking classes in a foreign country, I received no course credit from Pomona. As far as anyone back in Claremont was concerned, I simply took a semester off. Like many of my classmates, I had accumulated credits from AP tests and an extra course load, and my major requirements were minimal. I wanted to explore a new culture and study its history without any obligation to midterms or essay due dates, so I took a leave of absence from Pomona and enrolled directly in the Istanbul study abroad program with CIEE (which is not Pomona approved). That decision allowed me to visit the country of my choice without jumping through extra bureaucratic hoops, take liberties with the structure of my program, and generally chart my own path.

For one semester, I had an obligation-free professionally curated study experience which I was free to revise and improvise to my heart’s content. Skip class to go on a museum tour? No problem. Miss a week of finals to trek around the countryside? Go for it! Blow off homework to meet up with some locals? Sure! Don’t get me wrong, I took my studies fairly seriously. I studied the language, history, art, and politics of Turkey just as thoroughly in the classroom as out of it. But although I certainly spent my share of time in the Koç University library, my semester abroad was an opportunity to liberate myself from the structure of academic requirements that our education system has rigorously built.

You go to Pomona, so I know you are familiar with the obstacle course of academic standards—you beat most of your peers through it. And because you go to Pomona, I know you have an insatiable curiosity. So I hope you’ll understand when I tell you that stepping outside the obstacle course was refreshing, and that study abroad can be an opportunity to satisfy your unrestricted curiosity.

My first few years at Pomona, I admit I languished academically. I had achieved the major goal of my high school years and been admitted to my dream college, and I failed to immediately set myself a new goal. I felt no interest in grad school, so I saw no point in worrying overmuch about my grades. I didn’t know what I would do professionally, so I explored. I studied the subjects I found interesting (which was, admittedly, a lot of them) and did the work that compelled me. I maintained a respectable GPA, but I felt... aimless. Like I was running the obstacle course without really caring whether I cleared the hurdles.

My own apathy had held me back as I waited for someone to tell me what to go achieve. By studying abroad without the course credit, I think I sought to prove to myself that I didn’t need outside structure to give my work meaning, but could create it on my own. That I could have the academic drive for my own sake, not for the achievement of arbitrary goalposts set by biased and harmful social conventions.  When I took charge of my study abroad experience I was forced to ask myself what I wanted to achieve, and in the process kickstarted my inner ambition.

When I got back to Claremont, I saw my schoolwork in a new light. I felt renewed focus in my academic interests, increased the drive to achieve, and a clearer long-term path. I felt more in control than I had in years, and more purposeful. My friends and I evolved in our years together at Pomona, as we each made choices about the lives we would lead and the goals we would pursue. My study abroad semester was one of the most significant landmarks in my time as a Sagehen in large part because of how it redefined my relationship with my academic work once I had returned.

You may not have the course flexibility I had. You may not be able to afford to study abroad without Pomona’s financial aid. You probably do not feel the same aimlessness I did. But I hope you can find your own way to step outside the familiar when you consider studying abroad, and that it will grant new perspectives if and when you return.

On Study Abroad Through Pomona

David Wang

Far and away, studying in Beijing for 6 months during my junior year at Pomona navigated my life towards what it is today. I spent this time (summer and fall) enrolled at the Associated Colleges in China (ACC) in one of the most challenging learning experiences of my life:

  • I signed a language pledge: I only spoke Chinese for 6 months... including any foreigner I came into contact with.

  • I memorized 80-100 Chinese characters per day: Every single morning we were tested on these characters in dictations.

  • I engaged in strict 1-on-1 language training: Every day an army of talented, enthusiastic, and disciplined young teachers would correct my pronunciation and grammar without letting me finish a thought until it was correct.

Coming from Pomona's classroom environment that emphasized critical thinking, safe spaces, and indirect coaching, this new way of learning was very challenging. I remember after the first day at ACC I was sweating buckets. I had never really learned in this way before and I couldn't really even commiserate with my classmates as we all bumbled along in awkward Chinese with each other. But, I had been forewarned by a previous Pomona student that it would be tough, so I gritted my teeth and began to study like I had never studied before: 6 am rise to review vocabulary, a daily test, 4 hours of grilling from our teachers, lunch, workout, and then 5 hours of homework and study.

Yet, as I pushed through the first month, things began to get easier. I was no longer leaving the classroom with a body covered in anxiety-sweat. In fact, I was improving my Chinese faster than I had ever improved before. And oddly enough, I felt much more confident making mistakes as the teachers' direct corrections became a regular occurrence. This confidence actually made me and my classmates find ourselves in all kinds of hilarious situations (see the mockumentary my roommate and I made! https://vimeo.com/24528592). And perhaps most importantly, learning a new language rewired my brain to think in a new way: I became more outgoing and verbose when speaking Chinese; I became better at listening to the body language and cultural queues of both Chinese and foreigners, and I became aware of the weaknesses and assumptions of my value and meaning system. Here are some good examples:

  • The language pledge allowed me to befriend my conservative roommate. Having never spoken to my roommate in English for 6 months, we became extremely good friends as we both bumbled through Chinese to talk to each other. When we finally switched to English, I picked up on queues that would have normally turned me off to him but speaking in Chinese had made me more opened minded.

  • The 80-100 characters per night taught me to learn how to learn. This sounds a bit meta, but I became aware that I was learning on a learning style cultivated from a Pomona and years of American schooling. While this wasn't a bad thing, it had blinded me to the idea that sometimes repetition, rote memorizing, and being directly corrected has a lot of benefits. I rarely meet anyone who has attained a high level of fluent linguistic confidence in Chinese who has not attended ACC or a program with a similar pedagogical approach.

  • The 1-on-1 lessons made me fearless. As the semester progressed, the teachers got to know me better and while they still corrected me every other word, they also guided me in articulating my interests and goals. One of my goals had been to make a documentary about street basketball in Beijing, and the teachers took this goal and helped me build the confidence (and vocabulary) to meet and really build relationships with basketball players in Beijing. I had been inspired to make this documentary by the Dru Gladney at the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona and a sports sociology class at Pitzer. They had supplied me with the theoretical question, but ACC equipped me with the means to execute my plan in a meaningful way. The final documentary is still one of my most proud accomplishments and ended up leading to my thesis, a Fulbright Scholar grant, and a job researching Chinese youth culture. https://vimeo.com/1799084

Ultimately, studying abroad at ACC shaped the future I would take. It not only equipped me with the linguistic tools to truly immerse myself the society (I ended up doing research in China, getting a job in China, starting a business in China, and finding a life partner in China!) but it forced me to challenge my own ontology. "Ontology" is one of those words you end up learning while at Pomona, but understanding the concept and actually achieving awareness of the concept are two different things. Studying abroad allowed me to gain a deep level of awareness that changed my life.

Today, I'm back in the States for a spat. I've decided to pursue two Masters degrees in Urban Planning and Business at MIT. And the lessons learned at ACC continue to guide me to learn how to learn in this program. I fully intend on returning to China after I graduate. I look forward to hearing from any students, professors, or alumni!