Five reasons to not go on a field school (and five reasons why you should)

Culture Travel
All photos by Kelly J. Clark.

Maybe you’re looking for a way to round out that elective requirement, raise your GPA, or see the world on your parents’ (or student loans’) dime. Field Schools seem like a great way to do all of that, but before you go register and renew your passport, here are a few things to remember.

Five reasons you should probably not do a field school

1. It’s not a vacation, really.

A field school is exactly that: school. Don’t sign up for a three-week trip across China thinking you’re just going to coast through. There’s still pre-readings, class time, studying, presentations, discussions, and several post-trip papers that are going to hit you right at the height of summer when you’re back home in Canada and have forgotten about everything from your trip except your rad watch tan. And that’s not even mentioning how physically exhausting non-stop studying and traveling day after day for weeks on end can be. Don’t do a field school unless you’re prepared to actually do the work, or else you’re going to be paying a lot of money to lower your GPA. Speaking of which . . . 

2. It’s expensive.

Sometimes really expensive. Depending on how far across the world your field school travels, you could end up paying upwards of five or six thousand dollars— and that’s without alcohol, souvenirs, or, let’s be honest, more alcohol. There are often loans or grant programs to help, but it’s still not something you should decide lightly. Especially before you realize . . . 

3. You’re stuck with the same people for weeks on end.

This might seem like no big deal. You love people, have a big family, or are a real socialite. However, have you tried keeping that upbeat attitude for three straight weeks without getting more four minutes of privacy in your dingy, six-person Budapest hostel? Throughout the trip, you’re bound to see new friendships form, grow, and explode into unprecedented drama that you never would have expected, and you’re likely to be somewhere near the middle of it. It can be a traumatic experience to be stuck in a déjà vu loop of your time in high school, but what do you expect when you’re travelling with a few dozen university students? Even in a group of people with similar academic interests, you’ll realize pretty quick that . . . 

4. It gets lonely.

Unless you strategize with friends (see above), you’re likely travelling with strangers, which means that you can end up lonely — sometimes catastrophically so. You’re going to hit low points when you least expect it, and usually when the hostel WiFi craps out mid-FaceTime with your cat back in Chemainus. Unless you’re a polyglot or are traveling somewhere predominantly English or French speaking, you’re probably going to start to feel pretty isolated by the end of the trip, which is when you’ll realize . . . 

5. It won’t change your life.

Look, I hate to break it to you, but a field school to France is probably not going to change your life no matter what your Instagram feed says. A lot of field school experiences market themselves with phrases like “life-changing,” but the truth is that unless you’ve never done any travelling at all, they probably won’t affect you as deeply. If you do go, take exciting and appealing slogans like these with a grain of salt and focus on your own learning and enrichment because you’ll get more out of it that way than in waiting for some magical change to happen.

Of course, field schools aren’t all bad. There’s actually a lot that you can learn, do, and experience in person that no amount of classrooms, textbooks, or films could ever expose you to.

Five reasons you should probably do a field school

1. You’re actually interested in the material.

Passionate about Indigenous bands? How about Greek archeological sites or Holocaust memorialization? No matter how well-written the book is or well-framed the photo, there are layers of reality you’ll experience on-site that you never could remotely. Having the chance to experience the subject of an academic passion physically is a rare treat, for both the mind and the little nerd inside of you that pushed you into the Humanities in the first place — maybe you should spoil them? Of course, this goes double if . . . 

2. There are ways you can afford it.

If you have the funds, extra loan money, support, or just don’t care about debt, it’s a great excuse to learn. If you don’t, however, there are a number of scholarships, grants, bursaries, and local community support programs that help you get where you need to go. In fact, depending on your plans after the school, you could land a paid co-op abroad or get a working holiday visa and turn your trip into a much longer one, so that . . . 

3. You can go traveling afterward.

If you have the funds, use the field school to piggyback your way to a destination you’ve always wanted to go. Field school to Japan? Australia, New Zealand, Bali, and all of Southeast Asia are a fairly inexpensive flight or two away. Field School in Europe? A train pass is a great way to ride out the summer, so long as you don’t forget about those lingering assignments while you’re enjoying the Italian countryside aboard a train from Venice to Rome. And while you’re writing those reflection pieces, don’t forget to mention how . . . 

4. It will give you new experiences.

Have you ever drank 1 beer in front of a cathedral’s fountain in the dark and ate cake with your bare hands to celebrate the birthday of a guy you’ve known for about a week and a half? Have you watched a thunderstorm roll across the Polish countryside from the rain-splattered safety of a passenger train? Have you ever had to desperately attempt to order what you prayed was a kabob from a sketchy dive in Berlin using German that you think meant “thank you” but just as likely meant “yellow bathroom”? You will. These trips give you the opportunity to get up to a little mischief on the side, which is half the point because . . . 

  1. You get out of it what you put in.

It’s like anything else in life, really — you get what you put into it. Something doesn’t have to be life-changing to create a positive memory, and even an awful experience can serve as a growth opportunity. You could make lifelong friends, meet someone special overseas, or discover that you love a new language or really miss being surrounded by your old one. You could realize how much you love travel or how much you missed someone back home (probably that cat in Chemainus). And you will definitely, definitely, miss the toilet paper back home.

Field schools can be great experiences if you go in prepared, and if you’re not . . . well, let’s just call that a growth opportunity.