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Vassar Encyclopedia

An online work in progress under the direction of Vassar’s College Historian

Vassar Students’ Study Abroad

An article in 1917 in the Miscellany Weekly observed that Vassar graduates had “a very unusual opportunity for study abroad.” Mrs. Mary Borden Turner ’07, a novelist and, later, a famed nurse in both World Wars, had established the Borden Fund in 1907 to provide alumnae the opportunity to study abroad in Europe for a year after graduation. Mrs. Turner awarded $1,000 to enable a distinguished graduate to study the life and culture of Europe through its drama, music, art, and people, which she believed would train the social sense. The person selected was expected to be “socially useful” and to use the experience to train herself for social service. The fund had no set program or itinerary; instead, the graduate had the freedom to develop her own schedule and determine which countries in Europe she would visit.

In “The Borden Fund in Practice,” an article in the Vassar Miscellany in 1912Katharine Taylor’09 described her experience studying abroad. Taylor arrived in Europe with no plan. Allowing “Europe to shape” her itinerary, she began in Italy to fully understand the “spirit of the Greek people, and the part it has played in the world’s growth and culture.” From Rome, she went to Brussels, where she explored socialism, and then onwards to Germany, where she sat in on Woman Suffrage League meetings. In Munich, she took university literature and philosophy courses and visited various elementary, gymnastic, and trade schools to study education. Afterward, she moved on to Paris and took more classes at a university there. From her experience, she concluded that coming in contact with new people and ideas “is a strong positive stimulus which demands that one take a share… in those phases of activity of the community at home which are working radically and constructively toward the realization of better social ideals.”

In the years following the establishment of the Borden Fund, Junior Year Abroad programs grew in popularity throughout the US. In 1925, a Committee on Foreign Study was formed At Vassar. Chaired by Lilian L. Stroebe, a professor of German, the committee arranged for juniors to go abroad through a partnership with the University of Delaware, the first American institution to establish such a program. The junior year was selected because by then students had reached the minimum age to attend European universities and still have the opportunity to fulfill graduation requirements on returning in their senior year. Professor Strobe had observed that after WWI graduate programs were shifting away from usual post-graduate opportunities to become part of the undergraduate experience abroad.

Students initially studied abroad largely to learn languages, and the opportunity to go was highly selective and awarded to top language majors. The most popular destination was France, and students were required to have completed two years of French in preparatory school prior to another two years of study at Vassar. Other countries included by the committee were Germany, Italy, Spain, and Belgium, which all required two years of language study at Vassar. As part of the program, students were required to complete a daily private language lesson in addition to their curricular courses.

A decade later, the early anticipation of World War II discontinued the University of Delaware program, and the last students studied abroad in 1934-1935. As a result, many colleges developed their own programs. In 1948, a Committee on Foreign Study officially made JYA a part of the Vassar curriculum. Study abroad programs in Italy, Switzerland, France, and Mexico were developed by Smith College, Sweetbriar College, and Wayne University. Due, however, to the war’s devastation, organizers had difficulty finding European families willing able to accept visiting students.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, opportunities for JYA further expanded. Smith College remained the main organizer of Vassar study abroad programs, but starting in 1956 students were able to engage in arrangements between Vassar and other institutions. In 1969, Vassar established its first program, the Vassar-Wesleyan program in Madrid, which was arranged with the University of Madrid’s Institute of International Studies. While the program was primarily for Spanish majors, those interested in Spanish culture could also apply.

More and more majors outside of language departments began to study abroad. In the Class of 1969, 69% of students studying abroad were language majors, while in the Class of 1979, only 13% were such majors. This shift was due to a significant increase of other majors participating in the Junior Year Abroad program, with England becoming the most popular destination after British universities began to accept “non-degree” students. In 1976, Vassar’s education department established a program in Oxfordshire, giving students the opportunity to study at a local college and to intern at primary schools in the area. Students observed classes and then gradually took on teaching roles in order to learn more about child development. At this time also, in addition to France and England, the countries where juniors could study abroad expanded to include China, Israel, New Zealand, and Russia. Vassar’s own programs expanded to Germany, Italy and Ireland.

In the 1980s, study abroad at Vassar had developed a unique program. The anthropology department’s course, “The Ethnographic Experience,” allowed students the opportunity to develop an independent curriculum by traveling to a region of the world of their choosing and studying it under supervision. Opportunities for students grew, and further partner-programs developed, leaving only a few places in the world off-limits to students.


A. A. and B. G. “Portmanteau Fund Surplus.” Vassar Miscellany Weekly, Volume II, Number 12. 12 January 1917. 1.

Annibale, Bob. “Junior Year Abroad: Pierce Expands Exchange Programs.” Miscellany News, Volume LXVII, Number 5. 30 September 1977. 3.

Chevlowe, Susan. “JYA enlists 79; England, France most popular.” Miscellany News, Volume LXIV, Number 6. 1 March 1979. 3.

“Foreign Scholarship Open for Next Year.” Vassar Miscellany News, Volume X, Number 46. 5 May 1926. 1.

“Foreign Study Committee Announces New Program Of Study For Junior Year Abroad In France, Switzerland, And Mexico.” Vassar Miscellany News, Volume XXXIII, Number 4. 3 November 1948. 4.

James, Shirley. “Vassar Sends 24 Students on Junior Year Abroad For Studies in France, England, Italy, Switzerland.” Vassar Miscellany News, Volume XLIX, Number 4. 14 October 1964. 3.

Johnson, Colton. “Opinion: JYA Includes a Wide Variety of Programs.” Miscellany News, Volume LXXII, Number 16. 25 February 1983. 11.

“Junior Year Abroad.” Vassar Miscellany News, Volume XIX, Number 26. 9 February 1935. 4.

Marburg, Clara, Margaret de Schweinitz, Lilian L. Stroebe. “Rules and Regulations.” Vassar Miscellany News, Volume IX, Number 39. 21 March 1925. 1, 5.

Schuman, Roberta E. “College Sponsors Two Programs Abroad.” Miscellany News, Volume LXV, Number 11. 19 November 1976. 9.

Stroebe, Lilian L. “The Junior Year Abroad.” Vassar Quarterly, Volume XI, Number 1. 1 November 1925. 26-31.

“Student Curriculum Committee Examines Benefits Of Junior Year Spent Abroad.” Vassar Miscellany News, Volume XXXIII, Number 11. 12 January 1949. 3, 5.

Taylor, Katharine. “The Borden Fund in Practice.” Vassar Miscellany, Volume XLII, Number 1.1 November 1912. 30-34.

MT, 2021