Harvard (finally) gets a passport
A decade ago, George Reyes was a junior at Harvard with a yen to travel, empty pockets, and an unimaginative academic adviser. It was a bad combination.Skip to next paragraph
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He tried to figure out how to spend a semester abroad but was stumped by the bureaucracy at his department. He looked into getting a summer internship overseas, but was thwarted by the financial aid office.
"I was a poor kid who had made it to Harvard," says the 31-year-old native of Patterson, N.J., "... and it felt like everyone was saying, 'You want to do what now?! Are you nuts?' "
"There is an old Harvard tradition ..." says John Coatsworth, director of Harvard's David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, "... which says, if you are already at the best in the world, why go anywhere else?"
But, it turns out, there comes a time - even at Harvard - when traditions come up for review.
Last week, Harvard President Lawrence Summers and members of his faculty were in Mexico to admit that this particular tradition might have been somewhat misguided. Or, as they prefer to put it, times have changed.
"There has not been a time in the last century where there has been so much misunderstanding of the US and so much misunderstanding by the US of the world," Dr. Summers told some 400 Harvard alumni from across Latin America who gathered here for a two-day conference.
"This needs to be a preoccupation, especially for an institution as visible and as symbolic of the US as Harvard. We have opportunity and responsibility to promote international understanding," lectured Summers, as he laid out for his audience both the "how" and the "why" of this change of direction for Harvard.
The way Harvard intends to rise to that responsibility, Summers explained, is to ensure that every Harvard undergraduate gets a "significant" overseas experience, be it work, research, or study. The curriculum overhaul that will include this change - along with other innovations, such as a new focus on undergraduate scientific literacy - is expected to come into effect as early as next spring.
Harvard's first universitywide office overseas has already opened - in Santiago, Chile - with a mission to promote study abroad and international internships, along with other academic projects. Other such offices across the globe are expected to follow.
"We are living in a time where there is a need for leaders with global, cosmopolitan views, and having a foreign experience is uniquely important to creating these sorts of leaders," says Dr. Coatsworth, who participated in the curriculum review. "That," he adds, "...you might say is the amended Harvard tradition."
At a time when foreign mistrust of America is matched only by the country's bewilderment at the fact that it is unloved, the dispatch of Harvard students will make only a tiny dent in the international goodwill deficit.
But the new enthusiasm for overseas study - at a time when fewer foreign students are choosing to study in the US - is a measure of how globalization has reached even America's most venerable academic institution. It's a recognition that being an educated American today requires a measure of worldliness.
No, the concept of the semester abroad was not just invented in Cambridge, points out Carolyn Sorkin, director of Wesleyan University's Office of International Studies. Wesleyan's study abroad office. More than half of Wesleyan students spend a semester overseas. But, she emphasizes, Harvard's fresh approach to the topic is "absolutely" to be applauded.
"Anything which gets students to see and learn about other societies is very positive," she says.
"Harvard is playing catch-up," agrees Peggy Blumenthal, vice president of the Institute for International Education (IIE), a nonprofit based in New York. "But it's good they are, because when Harvard speaks, a lot of other schools listen up."