We all want to squeeze as much into every experience as we can. Students who are thinking about going abroad often think that the summer is the obvious time to have an international experience. After all, the end of April means Canadian students leave University centres in droves saying goodbye to friends and familiar haunts for 4 months. Going abroad for the summer can mean trading a summer of working for a summer of traveling and learning about a new culture. Simple, right? It sounds easy, but there is a bit more to it. The timing of study abroad matters.
Consider the spring term in Europe or the UK, which is the equivalent to Canada’s winter term. It is common for the spring term to last from late January through May or June. This means that if a Canadian student wanted to go on exchange for our summer term, they could not attend classes until late June or early July. The period of the exchange would then be only 2 months. Why does 2 months seem short to me as an advisor? Two months is a long vacation, but it is very short when you think about moving past the “tourist” phase and toward really understanding and absorbing a new culture.
You need time to make local friends, to see cultural difference, and begin to understand what is behind the difference. Otherwise, you run the risk of reinforcing previously held stereotypes and prejudices that you might not even realize you had. You need time to be challenged, disenchanted, and to begin to question your own values and beliefs. With time you can re-emerge, transformed by the new insights that you hoped to obtain by going abroad.
Time allows you to get the most out of this once-in-a-life-time experience, and for that reason I encourage students to think about a full year abroad, or at least a full semester.
Granted, there are Study Abroad programs that are designed to meet the North American demand for a summer term abroad. These can last for the whole summer or as short as 2 weeks, provided you are you are able to pay for such an experience (and the lost summer wages are not a concern to you). Yes, those programs will allow students to see new places and new things; however, those programs might not give you the immersion experience for which you are looking.
Be honest with yourself when considering whether or not you need the safety net of a program designed to fit the expectations for what you want to see and do in a summer term abroad. Some students are better off with this pre-packaged program.
You have to think carefully about how you envision your international experience. Is it all about tourism? Do the risks associated with challenging your values and rewriting your self-identity seem like something you are ready to take on? What does “authentic” look like to you? Are you interested in living and studying as the locals do? If that is the challenge you are looking for, then the summer is probably not the right setting for your vision.
There just wouldn’t be enough time.