Committing to studying abroad is not an easy decision. The usual questions arise – Where? When? How long? Do I have the time? Of course, there are a few assumptions the average student makes, as I did when I committed myself to Georgetown’s McGhee Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies in Alanya, Turkey.

I assumed that I would have a certain degree of freedom – to sleep at appropriate hours for adequate time; to eat what I saw fit and when I was hungry; to get lost and then find myself in a few Turkish cities; to learn about Turkey, its culture, its people and its language; and to explore further the aspects I found interesting and relevant to my course of study. ‘Twas not so. In fact, I was denied all of these personal freedoms at some point when I spent last fall in Turkey.

From our two-week orientation in Istanbul to the 10 days spent visiting Syria to the final week of classes, I felt as if I was being led around, stuffed with information – and food I didn’t like – and then put to bed. My seven classmates and I had a few moments when we were free to roam about, but most of our time was spent on field trips and obligatory meals. I felt like a dog on a leash.

For me, problems arose in a few distinct areas.

First, attendance at all meals was absolutely mandatory. There were no exceptions to this rule unless the student was in a situation dire enough to warrant his or her absence (illness, for example).

Furthermore, I could not choose what I ate. That’s right – our professors ordered for us most of the time, or else the villa chef prepared a dish of his choice.

Near the beginning of the semester, I met with the program staff and was told that I had committed to the meals when I committed to the program. Not even final exam time exempted us from our obligatory meals until a very unpleasant, heated argument between professors and students followed our complaints to the Office of International Programs.

The curriculum was another problematic area. What was never made clear to me while I was applying and the making my decision to go was that the program’s intense focus on history shapes the students’ academic experience. On the average weekend, we were taken on a field trip – for either one day or two – to visit a site of ancient ruins.

Now, my major is comparative literature: I have never been interested in the history of the Middle East, and I am not likely ever to be. As Claire Brennan (SFS ’10) said, “Many opportunities to study modern Turkey were wasted due to the intense focus on history during every field trip.”

The sheer amount of time that the program took up is another factor that shaped my impression of the experience. Because of the intense nature of the program, we had very little time to explore Turkey individually. Besides the nine-day break in October and a few free weekends, I didn’t feel the program gave us ample time to explore on our own. The intensity of the program was suffocating, not conducive to learning.

The whole scenario was frustrating. The McGhee Center seemed to assume that college upperclassmen were incapable of feeding themselves and navigating without getting lost.

In retrospect, I can understand the center’s interest in keeping us busy during orientation, running a structured program and ensuring that students attend meals when notables from Alanya come to visit. But I never expected to be forced to hand over the reins to my own life.

atthew Despres (COL ’10), another student in the program, agrees: “The limited time for individual exploration, be it on weekends when we could travel ourselves or during the scheduled field trips, made it difficult to see beyond what the program wanted us to see. Without being able to explore the country on our own to a great extent, even just by seeing the cities on the field trips on our own for a day, I feel that our ability to really appreciate Turkey for everything it is was limited.”

To be fair, the McGhee Center program is not a complete waste of time – it was quite structured, highly educational and Turkey is a spectacular destination.

But I expected more from the university that I have grown to love – in terms of simple freedom and flexibility. Let’s not give prospective students reasons to give up studying abroad before they begin.

Let this be a word of caution for youngsters looking to study abroad and also for the university – administrators and OIP must be aware that all Georgetown students, even those who are studying half a world away, should be heard and accommodated.

Heidi Pashman is a junior in the College.

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