Passport to Colby

Passport to Colby

When students start Colby with a semester abroad, they arrive on Mayflower Hill with a different perspective

By Ruth Jacobs | Photos by Christopher Grant

Dijon Street
Caitlin Murphy '10 and Sara Hersh '10 stroll down a Dijon street last August

First-semester-abroad students, known by fellow students as “Feb Fresh,” know that arriving at Colby with a close group of friends will ease the transition. The notion proved true for last year’s French travelers. “We were all terribly, terribly close by the end,” said Haskell of her group. “When we got to campus that January, that continued, and we’re all very, very good friends.”

Although they had the comfort of their core groups, most felt the need to branch out and meet new people. “I think when we got to Colby everyone sort of wanted something different,” said Ponsot, who began working as an Echo reporter. For Tucker Gorman ’10, meeting new people was easy, in part because he felt other first-years were eager to meet the “new” students. “People were really, really nice, far more nice than I thought they’d be,” he said. They introduced themselves and asked about his experience in Salamanca. “They really made the transition easy and almost seamless.”

Good, for Gorman. But few others would call their transitions “seamless.” In fact, most say the transition to Colby was difficult—even harder than the transition to a foreign country. For John Lewallen, it lasted a week. For Alex Haskell, it lasted the whole semester.

In France, Haskell, who grew up primarily in downtown Boston, fell in love with the independence. “Just to be able to have the freedom to pick up the phone and make train reservations,” she said—to travel to places like Nice, France, and Venice, Italy, and Paris for a friend’s birthday, to be “immediately thrust into adulthood”—was thrilling. “I think that was the hardest thing to let go of coming back to campus.”

Year after year, Weiss has seen students struggle. “There’s a slight mitigation when they get [to Colby] in January,” he said. “There are problems. The campus is bleak in January, it’s not beautiful like it is in the fall,” he said. Fewer events take place during Jan Plan. There are fewer opportunities to meet people compared to the regular semester. This hit Haskell hard. “I felt extremely isolated and very, very bored,” she said. “Those feelings kind of stayed over into February and March and it was hard to shake that off.” This student who wanted Colby more than anything—and was willing to make the sacrifice of missing the traditional first-year experience in order to attend—is applying this fall to transfer to a big-city university.

“Learning a language can just be in your head ... but to learn to live in a country, to understand it from the inside, that takes heart.”
—Jonathan Weiss,
Colby French professor, Dijon resident director

Haskell, though, is in the minority. Data show that first-semester-abroad students at Colby have a higher four-year graduation rate than their conventional counterparts. “It was absolutely a very difficult transition,” said Ponsot, a Queens, N.Y., native. She kept comparing Colby to Dijon. Then she said to herself, “This is not New York, this is not Dijon, and you need to find what is wonderful about this place.” By mid-February, she said, she was adjusted, and by April she was happy. “Your adjustment is such a mix of factors,” she said. “It’s a factor of where you’re from, it’s a factor of what you want from school, and it’s a factor of how you approach the situation. If you just keep it positive, anyone can adjust.”

To Dijon. To Mayflower Hill. And in the process, these students learn a new way of seeing the world.

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