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.