Limitations/downsides of studying abroad


At the beginning of her sophomore year, junior Alie Kussin-Shoptaw realized she would have to choose between majoring in psychology and studying abroad.

“One of the main reasons I came to Whitman was the study abroad opportunities,” Kussin-Shoptaw said. In her first year, she took a variety of classes to figure out what she liked. By the end of the year, she had decided on psychology.

“Sophomore year comes around and I’m thinking, ‘Psych sounds pretty good,'” Kussin-Shoptaw said. The first semester of her sophomore year, she took Introduction to Psychology and Developmental Psychology, but she hit a roadblock when trying to register for classes for second semester.

Kussin-Shoptaw could not add Psychological Statistics, a mandatory class for the psychology major and a prerequisite for Research Methods in Psychology, another required class. Both classes are, due to their popularity, not open to seniors.

The problem for Kussin-Shoptaw was that she wanted to go abroad for a semester during her junior year. She would not be able to do this and major in psychology unless she could leave one of those classes until senior year. She was told by the psychology department that studying abroad wasn’t a good enough excuse to take one of those classes as a senior, and, as Kussin-Shoptaw said, it became an ultimatum: major in psychology and stay on campus, or go abroad.

Kussin-Shoptaw is now a studio art major and a psychology and Spanish double minor.   “I was going to minor in art anyway,” she said, “…with art I had a lot more freedom.”

Studio art is not something Kussin-Shoptaw wants to do as a career, though. She plans to attend grad school and then do something with psychology. “The only hard part of changing my major was figuring out, ‘How am I going to get to grad school without a psych major?”

Fortunately, Kussin-Shoptaw’s case is not common. About 45 percent of the juniors at Whitman studied abroad last year according to the Whitman College Study Abroad Enrollment Report. Only two to five students every year who studied abroad take on a ninth semester at Whitman, said Susan Brick, Director of International Programs.

According to Brick, students in all majors go abroad, but it can be more difficult to go depending on when you decide on your major. Whitman does not require you to declare your major until the end of your sophomore year, but studying abroad will be easier to plan, Brick said, if you know your major by the first semester of your sophomore year.

But as seen with Kussin-Shoptaw’s story, this isn’t always early enough. With many science majors, it can also be important to know your major as early as freshman year. Even then, it can be difficult.

“I had always wanted to study abroad,” said Taylor Montminy, a junior pre-medicine student and biology major. Montminy looked at every single abroad program, but said that her professors told her that it wouldn’t work.

Like other science majors, the biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology (BBMB) major, has a reputation of making it difficult to study abroad, but according to James Russo, associate professor of chemistry and BBMB chair, “I think it is less difficult than people perceive if key introductory courses are completed by the end of sophomore year.”

Currently, four out of 13 junior BBMB majors are abroad: three in programs with instruction is in English, and one with instruction is in Spanish.

“Very few students will take science courses while studying abroad in non-English universities,” Russo said. However, if BBMB majors only go abroad for a semester, that semester does not necessarily have to include science classes.

Russo said that if BBMB majors take organic chemistry and general physics during their sophomore year, it makes studying abroad more flexible with the major. And if not, it can still happen.

“Some students choose to push courses out of sequence [to study abroad],” he said. Every way you look at it, studying abroad comes down to prioritizing.

“Sometimes students realize they have to choose between a double major without studying abroad or one major plus a minor with study abroad,” said Brick.

Although Kussin-Shoptaw described herself as disappointed and even angry after finding out that she couldn’t be a psychology major and study abroad, she said that her priority was to study abroad, and her major was secondary.

Kussin-Shoptaw will be going to Costa Rica next semester, where she will take ceramics and some psychology classes, because she doesn’t yet have enough credits in psychology for her minor. She said, “I’m going to work on that abroad, which is completely ironic.”