Study Abroad…But Get Off the Veranda

When a student studies abroad, there is an assumption that interaction with their new community and cultural immersion will just…happen. While every student who studies abroad does experience some type of immersion, true cultural immersion requires that students ‘get off the veranda.’ For a great definition of what true cultural immersion can be, see this article by Karen Rodriguez from TransitionsAbroad.com.

This phrase, ‘getting off the veranda’, comes from an article written by Anthony C. Ogden comparing today’s study abroad student with colonials from history. Ogden points out that many colonials maintained their distance from their colonized communities “interacting only as needed and often in an objective and disassociated manner” (The View from the Veranda: Understanding Today’s Colonial Student). Many travelers, whether vacationers, business travelers or study abroad students, don’t leave the Sheraton or Four Seasons enough or at all, says David Livermore in his article The Right Sort of Travel Can Boost your Career. Even worse, some travelers can’t turn off Facebook or stop texting Mom and boyfriend/girlfriend long enough to truly immerse themselves and build intercultural skills. I am hesitant to compare study abroad with colonialism, but there are certainly similar attitudes and experiences that students can have if they aren’t careful to step off the veranda. (And if program administrators aren’t careful to design programming that allows for true immersion.)

Ogden explains that while he is supportive of the growth of programs and students abroad, students can not be allowed to “observe their host community from a safe and unchallenging distance”. This safe and unchallenging distance is called the veranda. One reason that students are prone to staying on the veranda is that study abroad programs have become increasingly personalized to the student’s wants and needs (just like higher education in general, perhaps). Students have become the customer, study abroad is the product they’re buying, and study abroad educators and program administrators and advisors are expected to provide them with excellent customer service. Students are used to picking and choosing exactly what they want to participate in and study abroad is no different. Students pick which courses they take, if they want an internship or not (how many days a week they want to work), will they perform research or not, will they travel or not, do they want classwork in the the local language or not….And lost in all of those choices is the real reason for why they are abroad: not to control or customize an experience based on what they like, but to immerse themselves in a culture different from their own (different from their normal wants and likes). Students are used to choosing which parts of education they want to participate in, and whether or not they engage in experiences that promote true cultural immersion (or not) becomes yet another choice over their 4-year college experience. This customization and control allows for the experience to stay student-centered, rather than location-centered.

Study abroad experiences can then turn into a glorified vacation if the experience lacks true cultural immersion. I have seen this with friends’ study abroad experiences and I have also witnessed this when speaking with study abroad returners about their experiences. Some students can even identify certain study abroad programs and locations that can act as ‘vacation centers’ and pass that information onto prospective students looking for programs. Program locations then become attractive to students looking for an experience that is heavy on fun and travel, and light on true cultural immersion. There is even a satire going around social media right now that captures these students and experiences in a Tumblr called Gurl Goes to Africa. This site essentially trolls the Internet for and accepts submissions of photos, videos, and blogs from white study abroad students’ experiences in Africa. And while the students who have taken the photos or written the blogs believe their photos really capture a deep immersive experience, Gurl Goes to Africa points out that their day trip to a that idyllic village in Africa only provided the student with a photo and nothing else. Another excellent explanation of this can be found in The Problem with Little White Girls (and Boys).

This is dangerous for the obvious reason that the study abroad student leaves their experience with the same level of understanding of their host location and culture as they did when arrived. But Sasha Gronsdahl explains other harmful effects of these experiences in her blog “White Girl Goes to Africa: Am I anything more than a cliche?” She points out that some abroad experiences, especially in developing countries, are not about anything other than ourselves. We gain the resume-building experiences and never reflect on why mostly Westerners are in the financial and ‘knowledge’ position to travel to developing communities. Most importantly, Sasha writes:

“The second argument is that volunteers don’t build formative relationships with people in their host countries, and thus the “Other” remains just that: a group of people who are different, unknowable, and strange, open to our interventions because they are not really fully developed like us. That’s why we can pick up cute African babies for pictures in ways we would never do with children at home. We expect the people we visit to speak English to us and we fail to learn their language; we spend our time with other expats and remain separate from the local community at large. In the workplace, we exercise our privilege without recognizing it: we perhaps make demands on our host organization’s time and resources while our local colleagues have no equivalent access. Our voices are always the ones heard at meetings.”

Now, I am a study abroad and travel advocate. I believe a day trip across town and a year-long study abroad experience can hold similar values. However, study abroad programs must push students off of that veranda so that students can get to know their locations and host communities deeper than a tourist would. Students must be open to experiences that will get them into their host communities and program leaders must design activities and lessons that allow students to think critically not only about their host communities, but also think critically about their home cultures and why they studied abroad.

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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.