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.