Gap Year Series, Part 2: How Universities are helping

In the first post of this series, I talked about how gap years are not commonplace in the US, but can be very beneficial for students as well as American society as a whole. In this post I will talk about what universities are doing to encourage students to take a gap year before entering college and in the next post I will look at one specific example of an organization whose goal is to make gap years universal.

As mentioned in the previous post, gap years have negative associations in the US, but some colleges are taking strides to reverse this stigma. University of North Carolina, Princeton, Tufts, and others have instituted programs to encourage students to take a gap year for travelling and volunteering around the world before they come to college. Even though the program at Princeton covers almost all costs, American students still “struggle with the idea of separating from the education fast track that parents and educators expect.” It is the norm to go straight into college from high school and it’s hard for students who have worked their whole lives to get into a good school to see a gap year as a viable option. There are many benefits of doing so, as already explained, but combating the negative view of not going straight to college will take a lot of effort on the part of universities.

Princeton’s program aims to start small and then eventually send a tenth or more of its incoming students to a year of social service work in a foreign country before they set foot on campus as freshmen. They see this program as giving students a more international perspective, adding to their maturity and giving them a break from academic pressures. The president of Princeton called it a year of “cleansing the palate of high school and giving them a year to regroup.” They plan not to charge tuition for the year abroad and offer financial assistance to those who need it. Proponents of the program say it allows students to discover themselves and the world before they enter college. Some say they enter college too young and immature and this would be a way to combat that while doing something constructive for the world.

Even college counselors, whose job it is to get high school students into good colleges, tell their clients to take a year off before they go back to school. One such counselor said she had previously only recommended gap years to students who needed to mature, but now is telling most of her students to follow this path. She says she sees students never slow down and breathe and think about the person they want to become before going to college. A psychiatrist at Duke says that freshmen who delay college for a year tend to be more altruistic and empathetic because their brain continues to develop over this time period. He says taking a gap year is beneficial as long as students have a mentor, a plan for intellectual growth, and a commitment to do public service. When they finally come to campus the next fall they will be better prepared to succeed at the college level after living free from parents and the school environment for a while. They will also have a unique perspective on themselves and the world we live in that they would not have gained had they not taken a gap year.

Students who take gap years also have more real-world experience which gives them a leg-up on applying for internships and jobs while in college as well as after. With the job market as competitive as it is, it is important to stand out and this is a perfect way to do that. “Personal growth and a sense of fulfillment and purpose” is something most students get from a gap year that they would not otherwise receive.

Many of these types of programs have aims of helping students in any financial situation still be able to take advantage of them. The program at Princeton uses need-based financial aid and nearly 100 students have participated thus far. UNC offers their students $7,500 for a gap year and Tufts’ program will cover housing, airfare, and visa fees which can add up to $30,000 or more.

These incentives seem to be working at least somewhat because in 2013, 40,000 American students took a gap year, which is a 20% increase compared to past years. But there is still a long way to go. Businesses catering to gap year programs have been booming because of this increased interest. One specifically, called Where There Be Dragons, has had its revenue doubled in the last year to almost $1 million.

Can outside organizations along with universities help students gain this international experience? Stay tuned for my last post in this series about one organization that is trying to do just that!

Nomadic Schools in Yakutia (Russia)

Being simultaneously an Asian, Sakha (Yakut), and a citizen of Russia, I face unhidden interest about my homeland and my origin. Influenced by centuries-long stereotypes about Russia, many people do not know how diverse Russia is. It’s almost my daily, unpaid duty to reveal the diversity of Russia to others. When my international friends talk about my country, they use terms “Russia”, “Russians”, “Russian language”, “Russian culture”, imagining one notion instead of many. For instance, not many people use the country’s official name – the Russian Federation. However, only Federation embraces multinational, multicultural, and multilingual Russia. The Russian Constitution starts with: “We, the multinational people of the Russian Federation, united by a common fate on our land, establishing human rights and freedoms, civic peace and accord, preserving the historically established state unity…” However, this diversity often remain invisible.

The Sakha Republic (Yakutia) is a unique and special in every way. First of all, Yakutia is the largest federal subject of Russia by its territory and covers three time zones (1/5 of Russian territory, the Sakha Republic territory equal to five times of France territory). Yakutia is a home to several indigenous ethnic groups of Siberian north with their traditional lifestyle, culture, and education.



According to 2010 Census results, 403 nomadic families with 782 children live in the Sakha Republic. Reindeer husbandry is the main occupancy of nomadic families. In addition to traditional family education, there are 13 nomadic schools covering 180 children.

In extreme conditions of the Russian north, nomadic schools are designed to follow reindeer migration routes and provide access to education for children of native Siberians. For reindeer winter routes nomadic schools have buildings, for summer routes they use tents. These schools are supplied with compact computer, chemistry, physics, and biology labs. The curriculum includes classes of native language, Russian, national history, national culture, traditional ways of hunting, fishing, reindeer husbandry, environment protection, etc. Learning of the native language is one of the important goals since all languages of northern peoples are included in the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Endangered Languages. UNESCO and local government play key roles in nomadic schools development.



A teacher of the nomadic school is required to speak a native language, to be able to teach several subjects for children of various ages, to know traditional nomadic way of life, and be ready to face severe life of the Arctic. In 2006, the Yakutia Teacher Training Institute has introduced a special two-year program (with an option of distant education) to train teachers of natural sciences and mathematics.

Some northern children of Russia attend boarding schools in towns away from their families and traditional way of life. Children have access to the radio, television, and, in some places, to Internet. Not all of these children would like to return and continue traditions. Some of them dream to live in town, to get a university degree, to travel, etc.

Today, an International Arctic School project is being developed by a group of experts from Yakutia and it is undergoing a process of discussion. The international arctic school is expected to provide a university level degree with international standards to students of arctic regions. It is proposed to build an environment-friendly school in close proximity to the native populations.

Notwithstanding many positive outcomes, Russia’s indigenous people continue to face serious issues, including transport, healthcare, etc. I believe that all native indigenous people of the north should be granted a special status; laws and programs shaping this status should be designed together with representatives of Evenk, Even, Chukchi, Dolgan, Yukagir and others to ensure their survival and development in the future.



Gap Year Series, Part 1: Why?

In my last post I talked about Study Abroad and how crucial it is for students to gain international experience in the world we live in today. In this and the following posts in this series, I will talk about another kind of international experience for students—Gap Years. This post will focus on Gap Years in general and why they’re beneficial to American students. The next posts will focus on what universities are doing to encourage more students to take advantage of these opportunities and a specific example of an organization devoted to this cause.

I always found the idea of a gap year fascinating, probably because I have always loved to travel. When I heard of my cousins in England taking a year off before University, I was intrigued and also a bit jealous that they got to go off on worldly adventures for a year while I was applying for four (or more) years of sitting in classrooms directly out of high school. Gap years are not common in the US like they are in many countries abroad, although I wish they were. They are typically seen as something only the very rich can afford or an alternative option for an off-track student who is not ready to attend college yet. It’s pretty standard in the US to fast track kids straight to college and not let them take a breath until after that’s taken care of. In doing so, students shut themselves off from the world and only focus on their studies in order to get into a good college.

Gap years allow students to see the world outside of the classroom where they will have to live after they graduate from college. Not only do students “return to school more focused, self-reliant, aware and confident, but they also become part of the global movement to improve the world through their volunteering throughout the gap year.” After college, students rush to get jobs so travelling and learning about the world is not seen as important. Taking advantage of these programs between high school and college is really the best idea for most students. It would benefit them personally and also the greater population, by producing more worldly educated young adults.

Many see the year abroad as a release from the pressures of getting into a good college. Some high schools now hold gap year fairs to inform students about this option, and the number of companies that place students in gap year programs is increasing as well. Some of the growing interest in gap years might be because of the rising cost of higher education. Parents are less willing to pay for their kids to go to school and not know their purpose in life. Around 50% of students who begin four-year colleges don’t graduate within five years, and only 54% will graduate in six years. It’s important for kids and parents alike to make sure that where they go to school is the right place for them and they want to learn.

Since the pressure to get into college is so great, some students need to take a breath when they finally do get accepted. One recent graduate put it well when he said he needed time to “create a person rather than a college student” where he would get to recover from schoolwork and find himself. This also reflects the changing attitude about going away to college as a rite of passage. Some see college as merely a continuation of their very difficult high school experience. The gap between high school and college has shrunk in comparison with previous generations.

I’m of the strong opinion that gap years would be extremely beneficial to both students personally as a way for them to grow and learn about themselves and the world, as well as for American society as whole. These students will come back from their year abroad with a better understanding of the world around them and how they can be a productive part of it. As with Study Abroad, this kind of international experience is vital in today’s globalized world and if it were to become more commonplace in the US I think it could only have positive consequences.

Stay tuned for my next post about what colleges and universities are doing in order to encourage their students to take advantage of gap year opportunities and reverse the negative stigma associated with them!

New Oriental: How to make private tutoring successful in China?

“At New Oriental, our mission is to inspire Chinese students of all ages to improve their lives and expand their horizons through a lifelong commitment to learning. By empowering students to achieve their potential, build self-confidence, and develop a global vision encompassing both traditional Chinese values and modern thinking, New Oriental is committed to training a new generation of business and community leaders.”[1]

—Mission statement of New Oriental—one of the most successful private tutoring companies in China


 Recently, students in Lehigh’s International Education Policy class discussed the issues surrounding private tutoring, also called shadow education. The discussion focused on such issues as the phenomenon of private tutoring becoming worldwide, the equity implications of private tutoring, and the professional ethics of teachers who also work as private tutors. However, the situation of private tutoring is quite different in different countries. For example, shadow education functions successfully in Japan, while in other countries (such as Cambodia) private tutoring is not as successful. Although private tutoring has become a worldwide phenomenon, it is still heatedly debated.

After class, I continued to think more about private tutoring in China, and reflecting on how private tutoring has already been permeated into Chinese students’ common lives. Why do I say this? Because New Oriental—the most successful private tutoring company in China— has close relationship with Chinese students. New Oriental mainly focuses on the English language, and provides all tutoring services related to English examinations such as GRE, TOFEL, IELTS, and SAT. Since New Oriental was founded in 1993 in Haidian Distinct of Beijing, it had built 53 short-time language educational schools, 47 book stores, and 500 learning centers in 48 cities in China, and the 2011 statistics showed that there were about 15,000,000 students who had studied in New Oriental.[2] Now New Oriental is becoming more popular than the regular schools, and after connecting its success with the in-class discussion, I would like to highlight four points that make it successful:

 1. Addressing the needs of the Chinese society. New Oriental was founded when Chinese families and students began to be aware about the advantages of the Western education. At that time, the entrance exams such as GRE and TOFEL were seen as obstacles to pursuing education abroad and there was no doubt that the establishment of New Oriental helped those students prepare for the tests. With a good start, New Oriental began to expand its business to more areas, such as SAT training. With more and more Chinese students going to study overseas, New Oriental develops successfully

2. Offering new tutoring modes. “Speed Education” [3] is a strategy which New Oriental has implemented for many years. It means that most courses provided by New Oriental are short-term and last no more than twenty days during the holidays. At the same time, New Oriental learning centers are all over China, increasing access to tutoring services to students. Students don’t have to squeeze their own time from their busy school schedules; instead, they can choose any learning center which is near their homes. If there are still students who cannot attend the classes, they can choose to use online courses. Moreover, although the courses are short-term, the fees are very high. The high fees put pressure on students who are eager to make full use of every coin they pay. They have clear learning goals and concentrate on the entire courses, often resulting in totally different performances compared to their regular school classes. [3] At the same time, during the tutoring classes, teachers always tell some interesting stories about what happened to them in order to catch students’ attention, creating lively class discussions and avoiding boredom in their classroom. [3] Besides, in New Oriental, there is an interesting policy of grading for teachers. [4] In regular schools, teachers grade students; however, the roles change in New Oriental, where students grade and give feedback on each of their teachers’ performance. This policy guarantees the quality of courses and also is convenient for collecting suggestions from students.

3. Teaching the learning skills. Although New Oriental offers short-term courses, students receive plenty of information and curriculum content in the short period, which means that teachers have to make full use of every minute to deliver their knowledge. To make the class more effective, teachers choose to focus on the skills and not only the content of the teaching materials. [5] For example, for the reading questions in GRE, teachers will teach students how to exclude wrong answers and choose the right answers. When students participate in the exams, they have learned how to use the skills to answer the questions correctly. The higher frequencies of high scores on GRE or GMAT prove that those skills are more useful than the traditional teaching ways.

4. Raising the quality of teachers. Unlike those regular schools in China, the educational levels of New Oriental teachers are relatively higher and New Oriental has strict requirements for teacher recruitment. [3] Many teachers graduated from elite universities all over the world, such as Peking University, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, University of Pennsylvania, and others, thus creating an “elite team.” Besides, each teacher in New Oriental should have his or her own featured teaching method, [3] guaranteeing that every teacher is distinctive and thus ensuring unique learning experiences for students.

 Although New Oriental makes much contribution to the development of English in China, its commercial character is geared towards the generation of profit, which is also a reason of high fees. Rather than opening more learning opportunities for all students, New Oriental is only increasing opportunities for students who can afford the cost. This can future deepened social inequities in the area of education.

Furthermore, New Oriental is also criticized for problems in its leadership as reflected in such news titles as “Contradictions appear among administrative leaders in New Oriental”, “More and more teachers leave New Oriental,” and so on. According to the news reports, New Oriental has reached its success because of its collaborative leadership. However, some critics argue that as the company has become more successful and profitable, those leaders have become more arrogant and less collaborative, causing difficulties in reaching agreements and instead insisting on their own thoughts and ideas. [6] Moreover, many New Oriental teachers are becoming more famous and some students choose New Oriental just because they want to see the popular teachers. Those teachers think they bring much profit for New Oriental and they ask for higher salaries. If New Oriental refuses to meet their needs, they often choose to leave. It is a pity that some teachers have lost their original intention of being good teachers, they want to be more famous and earn more money instead.

Nevertheless, there is still a long way for New Oriental to go, and I also look forward to watching it develop in the future.









Public school district system in China: Realizing a real equity or bringing a new threat to Chinese education?

In February 2014, Chinese Ministry of Education issued a scheme of school district system, which allows that students to attend neighboring schools without passing examinations. This policy aims at allocating student resources more equably. [1] Since China passed the first compulsory education law in 1986, Chinese education has experienced a lot of reforms, especially in public education. At the beginning, the compulsory education was only defined as “required” education; Chinese students still had to pay certain tuition and miscellaneous fees (including books and school uniforms). To help more students receive education, the revised 2006 education law stipulates explicitly that students will receive a nine-year compulsory education without any tuition and miscellaneous fees in public schools. This education policy ensures that more students attend schools, while also giving students a right to choose their desired schools. This creates a phenomenon of more students choosing to go to key schools [2] instead of regular schools, especially in urban areas. It is common that many key schools set up entrance examinations to select best students, and even ask for higher education fees for students with lower examination scores [3]. On the contrary, regular schools are facing a shortage of student resources, creating a serious imbalance between key and regular schools. In this context, the school district system has been put forward to alleviate this imbalance.

Interestingly, in the development of Chinese education, “advocating for students to go to neighboring schools” is not new. To illustrate it, the China Education Online (CEO) has published a diagram to show the whole process of Chinese education [4]:

— In 1986, the Chinese first compulsory education law states: local governments set up elementary schools and middle schools to ensure that children can receive education in their neighborhood.

— In 2006, the revised compulsory education law states: local governments should guarantee school-aged children can receive education in schools which are near to the places of their official residence.

— In 2010, the “National Long-term Plan for Education Reform and Development” states: to adapt to the urban and rural development, local governments should regulate the school distribution to make it convenient for students to attend neighboring schools.

All the relevant educational laws and regulations mention that students should choose neighboring schools to receive education.

This new school district system emphasizes that students can attend neighboring schools without examinations, which would release pressure on students. At the same time, for those students whose homes are near key schools, they don’t need to compete with other students any more. Moreover, to avoid losing student resources, local governments will also strengthen the efforts to increase the quality of schools in order to balance the school facilities and quality of teachers in different schools. [1] It is hoped that, as a result, parents won’t try to send their children to key schools; and children won’t have to experience the intense competition in their early ages. To some degree, this policy creates a relatively equitable and healthy educational environment.

However, under the schools district system, one of the problems has caught people’s attention. The revised 2006 compulsory education law mentions that students can attend schools near their official residence, which means that students can attend any schools near their homes. The problem is two-prong. First, rich families may want to guarantee that their children receive best possible education and do not hesitate to spend plenty of money in order to buy houses near key schools. [6][7] In Chinese newspapers, news about “extremely high-priced school district housing” has been reported frequently and it is very common that parents buy school district houses in order to send their children to good schools. Second, poor families may be renting houses, which may prevent their children from attending neighboring schools. In other words, equitable access to quality education is still a problem. When children are rejected by schools because of the residential status, the educational system is not equitable any longer and has lost its own original intention. This problem may become a threat for Chinese education unless the government makes some measures to change it.


Unlike other countries where school district system has been used for years, China still needs better implementation mechanisms. Nevertheless, this system is a good attempt to reform Chinese education and it does bring certain advantages. Will it bring the real equity on public education? Or will it become a new threat? I believe we can find answers in the future.




[2] Key schools:  Usually those with records of past educational accomplishment – were given priority in the assignment of teachers, equipment, and funds. They also were allowed to recruit the best students for special training to compete for admission to top schools at the next level. (Wikipedia) 

[3] Tsang, C.M. (2001). School choice in the People’s Republic of China.



[6] Wu, X., (2011). The household registration system and rural-urban educational inequity in contemporary China. Population Studies Center.






Senior Year Reflections on Teach for America

Ever since I first learned about Teach for America, I knew I wanted to participate. Social action, teaching, working with underprivileged kids…I wanted to be Hillary Swank from Freedom Writers. I thought this could be my chance at sculpting young minds through education, which I already know is a powerful socialization tool.

It was not until this year that my praise and glory of TFA shifted. After receiving countless emails from TFA recruits on campus, I decided to meet with one. She, of course, represented everything that is positive and optimistic about TFA: someone whose life was changed by the amazing and talented group of kids and staff that she worked with for two years. Clearly this program changed her so much that she is continuing to work for TFA as a recruiter. But getting multiple emails a week was a bit much, and made TFA seem more commercialized and less competitive.

Throughout this year I have continued to hear more and more criticisms of the TFA program. I’m sure they have always been out there, but I think that I turned a blind eye so that my idealistic program could live on as a part of my future. Recently at Macalester College in Minnesota, a TFA Truth Tour presentation took place with a panel of teachers and former Corps members exposing the truth about TFA’s educational policy. According to Neja Singhal, a former corps member, “…if more college students actually knew what TFA was doing at the policy level, they would not be applying to be a corps member. They would never want to be a part of this organization.” TFA seems to equate student leadership skills with teaching skills – a very sellable message to high achieving students, but not necessarily the reality. During Singhal’s experience, many of the teachers in her assigned school were laid off as TFA teachers were entering, possibly due to the high turnover rate for TFA members.

“They know that we are basically being told by TFA ‘do not rock the boat, smile, be good, do your work, get the tests scores up, be good with admin, but don’t cause any issues because then you’re going to mess up TFA’s name.” (Singhal)

Many news articles disagree with these criticisms, highlighting the powerful impact that TFA can have on teachers and students alike. In the past month, a group of observers from various media outlets observed Nicholas Boatwright’s class: a TFA corps member teaching mathematics. The observers were astounded with Boatwright’s teaching abilities, noting how much these kids respected him, looked up to him, and were improving their scores. Boatwright admitted that he had never thought about being a teacher before getting into this program, despite the amazing experience that he is having.

Why would someone enter into a teaching program if they did not intend to be a teacher?

It is certainly true that Corps members do not receive as much training as certified teachers. In the article and study, Does Teacher Preparation Matter by Linda Darling-Hammond, Deborah J. Holtzman, Su Jin Gatlin and Julian Vasquez Heiling of Stanford Univeristy, findings suggest that teachers “consistently produce significantly stronger student achievement gains than do uncertified teachers.” There is a clear relationship between teacher education and teacher effectiveness – one that I am not convinced TFA is committed to understanding.

In Teach for America and the Politics of Progressive Neoliberalism by Randall Lahann and Emilie Mitescu Reagan, TFA is categorized as an example of “progressive neoliberalism,” holding all of the criticisms of neoliberal education. This article also presents the concern over whether TFA “can truly operate as a corrective agent to the market, given that corps members only receive five weeks of pre-service teacher preparation before entering the classroom as full time teachers.” Though I am not a mathematician, I do not think that those five weeks are equivalent to the amount of weeks required to get an actual teacher certification.

If you had asked me a year ago to describe Teach For America, I would have made you watch Freedom Writers and told you what an inspirational, motivational, and life changing program it is. It used to be a dream of mine to participate in this program. However, as a senior witnessing so many of my classmates applying to this program for all of the wrong reasons and being accepted, my perception has changed. It seems as though TFA has turned into a program that students apply to if they have no other job prospects. Rather than commit because of a love and attraction to teaching, many of my friends have applied simply because they do not know what else to do with themselves next year.

I do think that TFA has great intentions and attracts some of the best students nation-wide. But those are the students who are natural-born teachers. And since I am not certain that I want to become a teacher, the critiques of this program are clouding what I once thought was idealistic.

Study Abroad… BUT Why?

Welcome to my blog series on study abroad! Study abroad is becoming an increasingly important and valued part of a college education. This series will first look at why study abroad is important for personal development and success in the job market, then will move on to ‘getting off the veranda’ (or the importance of true immersion during a study abroad experience), and finish with how students can make their experience ‘work for them’ by providing tips on how to showcase their international experiences. Enjoy!

Fellow blogger and colleague Sarah Spiegel wrote an important blog a few days ago called “Generation Study Abroad: The Quest to Become “Citizen Diplomats.” In her post, Sarah discussed the very real boundaries that exist for students who want to study abroad. But as someone who has studied abroad, worked abroad and now works in study abroad, I believe more needs to be said on why students should go abroad and why institutions of higher education should work harder to get their students abroad through outreach and funding opportunities.

While it is true that only about 10% of American undergraduates are studying abroad, these 10% (about 300,000 students) are quickly becoming much more competitive in the job market than their peers without international experience. Stacie Nevadomski Berdan, an international careers’ expert who helped do research for the popular study abroad guide A Student Guide to Study Abroad, found that employers across many industries hire students who have studied abroad for very specific skills sets: ability to solve problems in complex, unfamiliar situations; adaptability with culturally diverse situations; excellent communication skills; and practical, useful knowledge of languages and cultures (Why Study Abroad).

Students often develop these ‘soft skills’ while they are studying abroad. However, these skills are not developed through chance while abroad; they are the direct result of interacting with local classmates and professors, interning or volunteering abroad with local companies and groups, and studying abroad on programs that enhance students’ academic programs (programs that aren’t just travel abroad but STUDY abroad).

Students who return from study abroad are certainly reporting these changes. IES Abroad, a large study abroad provider, recently polled its program alumni from 1950-1999 on the value of study abroad. 3,400 of their alumni responded, saying that study abroad mature more than they did during their whole on-campus career. They gained intercultural communication skills that not only gave them appreciation for other cultures, but also prepared them to be leaders in global workplaces. Many alumni also said that specific classes, internships or relationships helped them move into jobs that advanced their careers. Also, 42% of students who lived in a homestay report that they now use a language other than English on a regular basis (IES, The Benefits of Study Abroad).

These sentiments are being echoed all over right now from the New York Times Room for Debate: Study Abroad is Essential, where international experts debated the value of study abroad, to a recent RAND study of HR managers, which states intercultural competence was the 5th most desired attribute of an employee, to the Generation Study Abroad developed by the Institute for International Education (IIE- the group that also brings us the Fulbright program) that aims to double the number of Americans studying abroad by 2020. Colleges and universities around the country are signing on and pledging to increase the number of students going abroad on their campuses.

Generation Study Abroad has also been noticed by the White House, particularly by the First Lady who has become a very vocal supporter of study abroad. Mrs. Obama spoke with CNN on April 4 stating that

“the benefits of studying abroad are almost endless. First of all, it is going to make you more marketable in the United States. More and more companies are realizing that they need people with experience around the world.”

There is a noticeable trend of employers desiring more globally aware employees with international experience coupled with the trend of colleges and advocacy groups around the country pushing their students to go abroad more than ever is creating a supply and demand like never before. Employers are demanding candidates with international experience and colleges and universities are supplying more graduates than ever who have studied, interned, volunteered, taught and lived abroad. Now, institutions of higher education and study abroad program providers must also create funding sources and (or) create study abroad programs that maximize the experiences the students can have abroad while minimizing the price the students must pay. Colleges and providers must strive to make programming affordable so that all students can have the opportunity to go abroad, not just the students who can afford it.

Stay tuned for the next blog in the series, Study Abroad, BUT Get Off the Veranda!

Generation Study Abroad: The Quest to Become “Citizen Diplomats”

Fewer than 10% of American college students graduate with study-abroad experience and most of these experiences are in countries with which the US already has strong ties. Three times as many foreign students study in America than the other way around. Overall, the participation in study abroad has increased over the years, but on average the duration of the programs has decreased, with much of this growth being in programs eight weeks or less. While it isn’t terrible to go abroad for less than eight weeks (it’s definitely better than not going at all), one can argue that the more time spent abroad, the more students learn about the world.

These days studying abroad is an “economic and strategic imperative.” Global citizens who are capable of functioning in countries and markets outside of their own are “a necessary component of a competitive American economy.” One aim of higher education is to broaden perspectives and there is no better way to do this than to get students abroad. This also gives students a new perspective on how other countries view America, which can only help our foreign policy in the future.

This topic is especially timely since just this past weekend First Lady Michelle Obama gave a speech at Peking University in Beijing in which she promoted study abroad programs to both American and Chinese students. She lauded study abroad as being a “vital part of [US] foreign policy” and encouraged American students to be “citizen diplomats.” The globalized world we live in today means that every country can have a “stake in each other’s success” and that studying abroad can lead to “stronger relationships—geographically, politically, and culturally. We are striving for a world that is ever more capable of transcending its differences.”

The First Lady makes a good point that “relationships between nations aren’t just about relationships between governments or leaders—they’re about relationships between people, particularly young people.” Studying abroad isn’t just about making yourself look good on a resume, it’s also about “shaping the future of your countries and of the world we all share. Because, when it comes to the defining challenges of our time—whether it’s climate change or economic opportunity or the spread of nuclear weapons—these are shared challenges. And no one country can confront them alone.” Studying abroad gives students a unique perspective from outside of the US that they would not gain otherwise. Immersing oneself in another culture for more than a cursory tourist visit allows one to have a greater appreciation for and understanding of that culture. This can only help these future leaders in business and politics be more tolerant of and work more effectively with other nations. Employers across multiple fields are increasingly looking for cross-cultural competence in their new employees and studying abroad can help increase personal and professional opportunities.

But how do we ensure that more students have the opportunity to travel abroad and gain these experiences? There are some schools, like Goucher College, which require their students to study abroad. Should more schools follow this lead and is that even feasible? Historically, those who go abroad have been white, well-off women studying liberal arts. Studying abroad is expensive and fitting it in to the time you have to finish your degree is a concern of all students. Most universities give some financial aid to those who demonstrate significant need, but if you don’t qualify for that, I know from personal experience that trying to find scholarships from outside sources is not easy. Finding out how many students this leaves out of the study abroad experience would require much more research than there is space for here, but it’s probably safe to say it’s a significant number. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times says, “There’s a misconception that gap years or study-abroad opportunities are feasible only for the affluent, [but] there are lots of free options” or ways of making money on the side. Personally, I agree more with a critic of Kristof who says that these options that he calls “free” are outside of the university setting and require people to pay “program fees and travel expenses and, of course, make a significant time commitment” that not all students can afford, especially if it’s separate from their schooling.

So how do we combat these issues? North Dakota State also has a new interesting way of helping more students go abroad. They have been redeeming the airline miles that employees build up to pay for plane tickets for study abroad students who have the financial need. This year they will give out about 20 free plane tickets, which will really help some students with the financial burden of studying abroad.

There is also a new initiative being led by the Institute of International Education called Generation Study Abroad. More than 150 US colleges have so far pledged to increase their study abroad participation rates. The extremely ambitious aim of this initiative is to double American study abroad enrollment by the end of the decade. IIE has already invested $2 million in the initiative and is still seeking more support. The goal is to get 500 universities to commit to this initiative and address issues of scholarship support, curricular integration, and diversity of students they send abroad.

It is my belief that improving upon these issues will make a positive difference in the number of American students who study abroad. Universities that claim to have a global reach and want to shape their students into international citizens should do everything in their power to make it so that more of their students have the ability to study abroad because cross-cultural education is essential in today’s world.

Changing the Rules of the Game in Ukrainian Education: Democratization, Autonomy, Transparency

Serhiy Kvit, the newly appointed Minister of Education in Ukraine, is committed to creating a new model of Ukrainian education. Having signed the Association agreement with the European Union (EU), Ukraine is writing its history on a blank slate. The state is on the edge of implementing a European education system, which is expected to transform the society. The no-longer-Soviet model will be born in the next 100 days of the operation of the new Ministry.

According to Kvit, the first step of the administration will be to regain trust of the people to the Ministry. In order to fight corruption, the financial audit will be completed and all Ministry’s transactions will automatically appear on the Internet to be accessible to the general public. The role of the state as a guarantor of the quality of education is going to change too. The state is willing to give up all “controlling and repressing” functions and will become the partner of universities. In such a way, the responsibility for education quality will be delegated to the universities by providing them with an autonomous status. All the Ukrainian students that initiated the campaign “Against Degradation of Education” in 2009-2011 and the activists that occupied the Ministry of Education four weeks ago must be enjoying a great sense of accomplishment because one of their main requests – university autonomy – is going to be granted.

The new Ministry officials plan to initiate many more reforms in education. In one of his recent interviews, Kvit argued that “we are living in the global world and there is nothing internal, no internal criteria for education quality, there is only the global market.” According to him, the only thing that matters is whether “we are competitive or not.” This trend is going to change the way the state sees the criteria for the success of universities. The new main criteria of quality will be “the results of scholarly research” as opposed to teaching only. Changing the structure of universities by providing them autonomy will be the first step that will “allow universities to be leaders in global ratings.”

The second step of new reforms is the facilitation of the procedures of recognition and legalization of foreign educational certificates. Today, Ukrainian students with Western education suffer from a humiliating process of recognition that discourages them from coming back home upon completion of programs. As Kvit stated, “if you have a Harvard degree and you come back with it to Ukraine, this is your problem.” Brain drain has been tremendously troubling for the Ukrainian nation.

Now the new Minister has given the students hope. No, he is not going to try and keep talented youth at home. On the contrary, he argued that Ukrainian students should travel more! In order to encourage them to do so, the government will make an emphasis on English language learning. The latter is critical since Ukraine is changing its role model. With the Soviet Union being long gone and “Russian standards of education being doubtful,” from now on Ukraine will compare itself to Western and US universities and strive to achieve Western standards. Kvit does not see student mobility as a threat. Nor does he see Europe or the West as such. He sees them as partners that can provide “a successful model of development” and can teach Ukraine valuable lessons.

The first lesson to be learned from the West is the encouragement of private investments in education by well-off private investors. Once again, Kvit is being realistic when he sees this goal as over-ambitious due to distrust of private contributions reigning in the political culture of the Ukrainian society. In any case, he is willing to take a risk with this long-term agenda.

Ukraine is at the stage of a major political conflict and until it is not solved, education will not be put on the national agenda. However, it is clear that once the political situation stabilizes, the reforms this time will be radical and will mirror multiple globalization trends. What is important now is that having tremendous power to revitalize Ukrainian education, the new administration is running the risk of neglecting the Ukrainian local context when borrowing features of Western education. It seems as if the quality of Western education goes unquestioned by the newly appointed officials. The rhetoric of university autonomy, private investments, English as the compulsory language of instruction, and global ratings sounds like a step forward in the eyes of the proponents of neoliberal reforms.

What about the ones that do not agree with the trends? Is their opinion going to be considered? Are their suggestions going to be dismissed as old-fashioned communist remnants of the past? At this point Kvit is claiming that education is not a business, but the reforms he is suggesting require serious investment that the state does not have. English as the second language is only one example. When asked how children from rural areas are going be taught English in the conditions where the only foreign language taught is Russian, Kvit gives a politically correct response that he is aware of the issue and the state will take care of it. Obviously, he is not expected to provide all the answers. However, the agenda he is setting seems to be dictated by the modern capitalist market economy which Ukraine has not adopted.

Moreover, the proposed plan is so alien to the Ukrainian national context that its implementation may seriously endanger the Ukrainian national education. Some may argue that there is no such thing as “traditional” Ukrainian education in the first place since the latter is equated to the Soviet system. This argument might be reasonable, but it is difficult to question the value of national education that has truly redefined the sense of Ukrainian identity since 1991. With the new market-oriented reforms on the agenda, these achievements would be lost. The citizens brought up by the new system will be global, competitive, and market-oriented. Is this going to be achieved at the cost of losing Ukrainian national identity?

Bilingual Blues

While most college seniors venture to an all-inclusive resort for their last spring break, I decided to take a more rugged approach and backpack through Europe (quite the opposite of all inclusive I might add). It turns out that many people fear the cold of Norway, Ireland, Belgium and Denmark in early March, making it the perfect opportunity to downplay my experience as a tourist. I have never been to Europe before, but I have been to Asia, Africa and South America…not the norm, I’m aware.

In each of the four countries that I visited, I traveled with ease on public transportation, ordered food by speaking in English at restaurants and asked numerous people for directions, simply expecting that they would understand and want to help…and everyone did.

My first trip to Europe made me realize the power of bilingualism, specifically the power of bilingual education. In the European Union there are 24 official languages, and the European Commission has declared a long-term objective to “increase individual multilingualism until every citizen has practical skills in at least two languages in addition to his or her mother tongue.” It is clear from my recent visit that the majority of European citizens are bilingual, learning their second language in school starting at a very young age. And it is not enough to say that Europeans are just bilingual – speaking English in addition to a native language seems to be a given, with additional languages taught alongside English.

The story of the United States is very different from that of the EU. The United States federal government has a long history of eradicating bilingual programs in the hopes of “acculturating” or “saving” certain diverse populations. In the mid-19th century, the US Bureau of Indian Affairs established “a series of English-only boarding schools” in attempt to stamp out native Indian languages. In the beginning of the 20th century, anti-German hysteria caused systematic closings of German language schools. Up until the mid-20th century, Mexican-American students in Texas were segregated from white students in schools. And these trends are continuing. Latino students in Hempstead, Texas were recently told that they would be punished for speaking Spanish in class, and that Spanish would be permanently banned at school.

In 1998, Californians voted to pass a measure called Proposition 227 that placed restrictions on bilingual education. The state government was convinced that “California’s language diversity…was a problem to be eradicated, rather than a resource to be developed.” This is a huge issue in California especially where the Latino population is expected to surpass the white population as the single largest ethnic group in the state. This debate continues on in many states. In New Mexico, House Majority Leader Rick Miera sponsored the “State Seal for Bilingual and Bilterate Graduates” act which “certifies that the recipient is proficient for meaningful use in college, career or to meet local community language need in a world language other than English.” New Mexico continues to fight for the rights of multilingual citizens, and is seen as a leader in multilingual education.

Though New Mexico and various other states in the US are making progress towards more intentional bilingual education, the United States still has a long way to go. The majority of US citizens are not bilingual, and are lucky that English is spoken all over the world. To me, this is more than just a language debate – it is also an identity debate. According to NY Times reporter Peter Teffer, foreign languages can foster social inclusion, diversity and intercultural dialogue. The identity that languages form for children and young adults involves interactions in relationships and communities. Especially given our globalizing world, “languages are a crucial asset for mobility and jobs.”

I’m not sure which is worse: taking away the ability for students to speak their native language in schools or not providing all students with a bilingual education from the start. As this debate continues throughout the world, I can only hope that the United States begins to see value in bilingual education, and works to make changes to the education system in order to accommodate these powerful globalizing forces.