Understanding the trade offs involved in spending the fall semester abroad

Before we get to the meat of today’s blog, wanted to give you a heads up that we are seeing predictions of the potential for freezing rain, sleet, or snowfall for Sunday. Your Deacs would be well-advised to plan ahead in case it comes to pass: make sure they have enough groceries/supplies (for those who live off campus) and enough things in their room to eat/cook (if they live on campus and don’t want to slog through the snow to our various eateries). Also, please remind your students about not driving if there is ice. I hope to have more on the forecast tomorrow after I get a weather briefing; right now it is too soon to know what might happen. For now, I will leave you with one of my favorite NC weather memes.

Joke: snow in the deep South

Right now, there is a sizable number of current students (mostly current sophomores) who are planning to spend the fall semester of 2022 abroad. Study abroad is an incredible experience – it was by far my best semester at Wake – and I encourage all students to consider studying abroad. That said, there are some nuances to study abroad that bear our students thinking it through before they commit to a decision.

The historic trend at Wake Forest is that we have a much larger number of students who study abroad in the fall as compared to the spring (interestingly, most of our peer schools are the opposite – more go abroad in spring). From a cultural standpoint, Wake students seem to prefer the fall because that expands their ability to share in the experience with more of their peers, adds to the number of cities/countries they can visit (and stay with their Wake friends while there), and allows those in fraternities and sororities not to miss spring recruitment for new members.

The twist to this story is that if we have more students go abroad in fall, it impacts students’ housing for their return in the spring (as I have cheekily said to my academic advisees many times, there is no magical, unicorn residence hall sitting empty each fall waiting for juniors studying abroad to return in the spring). In practical terms, what this means is it is very likely that students returning from a fall abroad will be filling in an empty bed in an existing room, not living in a double with their best friend.

We tell students about this in a number of ways, including info sessions about study abroad, and in individual meetings between students and Study Abroad Advisors. In addition, when students sign their Study Abroad Student Agreement, it reads: “Students studying away during the fall semester will NOT select housing during Housing and Dining Selection during the preceding spring semester. Instead, these students will select their housing for the spring semester online in December. Students returning from study away programs in the fall have limited housing options for the spring and are often placed into rooms with open beds, meaning they may be living with new roommates. Residence Life and Housing will contact students in the fall semester to provide them with a timeline of when they will be able to view available spaces.” Students sign a Post-Acceptance Checklist (after they commit to a fall abroad program) with similar language.

The challenge we have – and why I want to focus on it with parents and families – is that for the past few years, while we have been renovating residence halls (and thus had a lot of rooms offline), we released a large number of returning-from-abroad students to live off campus via the off-campus lottery. Seeing this, students have assumed that will be the case every year, and assume they are likely to be released to live off campus. Sometimes they make plans and sign leases on that assumption (though they should not!)

Now that Luter Hall is back online, and we anticipate that Bostwick and Johnson renovations will be completed by the end of summer 2022, we will have our full complement of rooms available in spring 2023. So it is likely that we will NOT be releasing large numbers of returning-from-abroad students to live off campus. Instead, they will be filling in the spaces vacated on campus by students who are going abroad in spring 2023, or who are taking a semester off, transferring, etc. 

Students planning to go abroad in the fall – for fall 2022 or beyond – should be asking themselves these kinds of questions to make an informed decision about the full impact of their choice:

Am I willing to compromise on which semester I go abroad, knowing there are pros and cons to each semester?

If I go abroad in the fall, will I have such a good time that it will be worth it even if I have to select a room with an open bed and live with someone I don’t already know when I return (i.e., I can’t room with one of my friends)?

Would I be better thinking about going abroad in the spring, that way I can be on campus the fall of my junior year (and will be able to select the residence hall room/roommate of my choice for the fall)?

For those who choose to go abroad in the fall, when it comes time for room selection for the spring semester, students will have to recall the trade-off they made: I wanted to go in the fall with my group of best friends, and that means that it is likely I will share a room that has an empty bed when I return, and I might not already know my new roommate. 

(As an aside, students should be open to the possibility that living with someone they didn’t previously know might work out just fine! Sometimes being paired in a room with someone you didn’t know previously might be the beginning of an amazing new friendship you would never have discovered otherwise.) 

We share this now because we want parents and families to be aware of the likely outcome for spring semester 2023 housing: most students going abroad in fall 2022 will likely be able to be accommodated on campus in existing rooms with vacancies, and should not sign leases for housing off campus unless/until they are released in writing from the Office of Residence Life and Housing, which would not happen until November/December 2022. And if the idea of living with someone they don’t know is really problematic for your student, they may want to consider switching their abroad application to a spring semester.

You can help us by talking to your Deacs about this now, so they can make the best decision for them. I believe that if they can live for 15 weeks in a foreign country with a foreign culture, they can spend 15 weeks living with another Wake student 🙂 – but they should consider that fully before committing to a fall study abroad program.


— by Betsy Chapman, Ph.D. (’92, MA ’94)