The Study Abroad Solution: We Need More, But It’s Not an Answer to All Things

In early 2016, Dr. Sanford Ungar published a provocative article in Foreign Affairs, “The Study Abroad Solution: How to Open the American Mind.” I looked forward to hearing what Dr. Ungar (former president of Goucher College and a key proponent of study abroad as a requirement for college graduation) had to say. I re-read the article recently, and decided there were points worth reiterating almost a year later.

To summarize Dr. Ungar’s points:

  • Despite the ever-increasing prevalence of the Internet and its impact upon our daily lives, many Americans still know little about the rest of the world.
  • Relatively few Americans spend any significant amount of time abroad.
  • As the world has become more interconnected, understanding world affairs becomes more critical than ever before. Yet Americans seem to have become more isolated.
  • The fact that much of the U.S. public does not “know and understand others, except through a military lens,” is not just unfortunate but also dangerous, since it leads to fractured foreign policy and widespread misunderstandings.

Dr. Ungar concludes that a “disarmingly simple way” to combat this state of affairs is to “massively increase the number of U.S. college and university students” who study abroad for some portion of their undergraduate or graduate education. He would like to see the U.S. federal government create incentives to make study abroad a more widely available educational choice for U.S. students. He argues that only a significant push from the government and increased commitment from the private sector will make this happen, with (in his viewpoint) a positive result being that the United States would begin to have “a more healthy relationship with the rest of the planet.”

I agree with the general tenor of these points. Like many in the international education field, I believe it’s more important than ever. We do need more intercultural understanding and exchange, and it’s not happening by itself. We see people turning away from reading the news as a result of drowning in too much information, much of it difficult to sort through to determine fact from fiction. We’ve all heard about Facebook and Twitter algorithms showing us only what we already believe and want to see. How can this help us move forward towards more cooperation and mutual understanding and goodwill?

It’s depressing to think that many Americans seem unaware of the importance of cross-cultural understanding in a world of global inter-connectedness. It’s frightening to see how isolationism has become a renewed focus in this country. As Ungar notes, fewer than half of U.S. citizens hold passports — by his estimate and that of others, it’s less than 40 percent. One recent estimate is higher, at 46%, but that’s still not something to get excited about. Ungar notes:

Compare that figure with the numbers from other English-speaking countries that are geographically isolated: 50 percent of Australian citizens hold passports, as do more than 60 percent of Canadians and 75 percent of New Zealanders. In the United Kingdom, which is admittedly much closer to foreign destinations, some 80 percent of citizens carry passports.

Even if it’s 46 percent, that figure may not provide a reliable guide to how many Americans actually travel abroad. How many got a passport for one short trip, never to be repeated?

It’s easy on some levels to see why many Americans do not have exposure to other cultures or why international travel might not be a vacation of choice for many Americans. The U.S. is large, after all, and getting to another country is often farther away than a short drive of a few hours. International travel as a result can be expensive. Our country also has quite a bit of diversity of its own. The implications of our own diversity have become more evident to many Americans since the November 2016 presidential election. Although significant regional differences have existed since before the U.S. became a single nation, it feels as though the recent election has increased polarization between “liberal” and “conservative,” “red state” and “blue state,” and “urban” vs “rural.”

Is Study Abroad Always the Answer?

I’m in favor of study abroad in high school, college, and post-grad. Benefits include not just learning another language and culture, but include increased self-confidence, development of an ability to think on one’s feet, increased confidence in dealing with unfamiliar situations, and more. International educators and others point to the many leaders in their respective fields who have studied abroad.

That doesn’t mean I’ll defend all study abroad programs at all costs. To the contrary, I agree that one can legitimately raise questions about the effectiveness of many study abroad programs. Concerns and questions that I (and others) have raised include:

  • Where do U.S. students go for their study abroad programs? More than half of U.S. students studying abroad go to Europe, which — while certainly providing positive experiences — arguably does not provide the key cross-cultural understanding that U.S. students need in today’s world, which includes much more than the U.S. and Europe. The same problem afflicts high school cultural exchange programs bringing students to the U.S.; Europe and just a few Asian countries are the primary countries sending teens in this direction.
  • What languages do U.S. students speak during their study-abroad programs? How many Americans have the language ability to take classes in a language other than English? More and more study-abroad students do their studies in English, a trend that misses the point in an increasingly complex, multicultural world where a considerable percentage of the world’s population speaks more than one language.
  • What kind of interaction do students have on their study abroad programs with local people and culture? Do they interact primarily with each other on campus and off campus, or does their program encourage and provide incentives to interact with the people who live there?

As Dr. Ungar notes, one way to make progress on a goal of increasing our understanding of the world at large is to increase the number of Americans who study abroad for some portion of their educational career. Such efforts include the Institute of International Education’s Generation Study Abroad initiative, which aims to double the number of U.S. students studying abroad by the end of the decade. I’m not quite convinced, though, as Dr. Ungar says, that “[a]ny study-abroad experience is better than none at all.” With current programs running the gamut in the kind of experience being provided, it’s entirely possible that we could dramatically increase the numbers of U.S. students studying abroad without significantly expanding inter-cultural experience and understanding.

We need something more. We do need more U.S. students studying abroad, absolutely. We also need to take a closer look at the nature of foreign study and to provide alternatives. We need to address the lack of language requirements in U.S. schools. All of these are critical, and all could help. As Dr. Ungar notes, there continues to be a gap between the “positive, even zealous views [Americans] hold of the United States and its role in the world, and the anti-Americanism and negative perceptions of U.S. foreign policy that flourish almost everywhere else.” The global landscape today calls for a radical restructuring of how we target traditional study abroad programs and international cultural exchanges.

Dr. Ungar and others tend to focus on colleges and universities. I would argue we should provide incentives for schools to encourage more students to study abroad during high school as well. We should encourage our own children to study abroad, and we should also increase the number and country of origin of students who come to the U.S. for a semester or year. Living with host families in a foreign country, as the students we work with every year do here in the U.S. and as our own son did in Ghana, can be a powerful cultural and personally enriching experience — perhaps more than what college students from the same country living together among themselves may find in some study abroad programs.

Convincing U.S. high school students to go abroad is a challenge. Athletics are a strong focus in U.S. high schools, which is both a strength and a weakness. Students participating in athletics are reluctant to take time away from the team, and are concerned about potential impacts on college athletic opportunities. Students involved in debate, music, theater, and other non-academic activities common in U.S. high schools find that they may be held back in their ability to progress in those activities if they spend a semester or year away. Rather than assuming these barriers are insurmountable, shouldn’t we try to find ways to solve these problems?

Encouraging Cultural Exchange Within the U.S.

The size of the U.S. tends to result in domestic, rather than international, travel patterns. Our own family will go from Portland, Oregon, to Seattle, Washington, some three hours away in a different state; we consider that a normal road trip. In three hours, families in southern Germany go to Austria, Italy, Switzerland, or France for their road trip. The difference in cultures experienced in a 3-hour trip is infinitesimally small in the U.S. as compared to what’s possible in Europe; indeed, Portland and Seattle are essentially the same culture.

Our size and history as a nation of immigrants from many places contribute to a diversity that most countries don’t share. Our “backyard is as diverse as it is enormous.” In fact, we as a country would benefit from inter-cultural exchange within the U.S. Let’s not limit the conversation to the international level.

This isn’t a new idea. In an earlier post, we talked about a two-part podcast series from the public radio show This American Life called The Problem We All Live With which talked about school integration. We noted several university programs that have initiated “study away” programs within the U.S. in which students learn about different U.S. cultures by living there. At the high school level, see this program in Minnesota, started by a kindergarten teacher.

Let’s explore all of it. Let’s talk about how to increase real inter-cultural exchange and broaden our thinking about what that means. Let’s explore how to get more students from other parts of the world to come to the U.S. during their formative high school years, to experience American friends and sports and holidays. Let’s find additional ways for U.S. students to study abroad. I applaud Dr. Ungar’s efforts and his larger message; I just think the conversation we need is a broader one.

Finally, but certainly not least . . . let’s try to avoid having the U.S. State Department’s budget slashed by 28 percent, as recently proposed in the President’s budget. The proposed budget would cut funding for most of the Department’s cultural exchange programs other than the Fulbright Program. It’s perhaps one of the most “penny-wise pound-foolish” savings you could find in Washington.

 

Will Cultural Exchanges Die Under the Trump Administration?

We try to avoid making “political” comments here on The Exchange Mom blog, knowing that audiences involved in cultural exchange and international education come from all walks of life and all political persuasions. President Trump’s proposed budget, however, is so potentially game-changing that we feel compelled to speak up.

There are many impacts of the President’s budget proposal beyond international education and exchange. I’m not even going to go into what the proposed budget cuts would do to environmental programs and the environment. Let’s just stick with the one agency that we’re involved with in high school cultural exchange — the U.S. Department of State.

The President’s proposed budget would cut funding for the U.S. Dept. of State by about 29%, eliminating most cultural exchange programs other than the Fulbright Program. Exchange programs dependent on significant federal funding could be doomed. These programs are important. See, for just a couple of examples, our posts Hiding in Plain Sight: The Changing Needs of Cultural Exchange and Today, An Exchange Student: Tomorrow . . . ? for our thoughts on why some of these programs are important. We would all be poorer for their loss.

proposed budget graph Dept of State 2017
Source: What Trump cut in his budget, Washington Post, March 16, 2017, http://wapo.st/trump-budget-proposal?tid=ss_tw.

It would be a mistake to assume that other cultural exchange programs — even if they do not primarily rely on Department of State funding for students — would come through this with no significant impacts. If the relevant oversight offices at the Department of State are defunded, for example, what happens then? Can the cultural exchange programs exist without a partnership with the Department of State?

Less direct but just as important is the additional pressure that public schools may face in coming years. The new Administration has plans to implement voucher and other programs. If attendance at public schools decreases as a result of such programs, the public school system will be increasingly squeezed. Will they still be receptive to high school exchange students on J-1 visas, who do not pay tuition? Will they be able to afford those students?

It’s hard to know how this will all play out. We can all see, however, that the Trump Administration has made clear that these are its priorities. The Administration’s proposed budget reflects a “hard power” approach to the future, not the “soft power” approach generally attributed to diplomacy and the State Department, and which most cultural exchange programs clearly support.

The international education community is beginning to speak out. As stated by the Alliance for International Exchange yesterday, as one example:

“Educational and cultural exchange programs have been a critical component of our national security policy since the end of World War II. ….the State Department reports that 1 in 3 current world leaders have been on an exchange program in the United States. In another Department study, 92 percent of participants from Muslim majority countries reported having a more favorable view of the United States.”

Shutting down these programs in favor of buying more guns and bombs ultimately will prove both shortsighted and “penny wise, pound foolish.” We hope that the high school, college, and post-graduate exchange community will make this clear to congressional and other representatives.

Is Tourism an Answer?

I came across a short video this morning that I thought I would share with readers. Aziz Abu Sarah is a Palestinian whose life did not start out in a way that would make you think he would be able to connect with Israelis; his older brother died in prison after being arrested on charges of throwing stones and being beaten. Later in life, though, Aziz met some Jews who, he realized, were ordinary people.

Sarah had an epiphany: Not only did they share his love of small things, namely country music, but coming face to face with the “enemy” compelled him to find ways to overcome hatred, anger and fear.

Aziz Abu Sarah decided that tourism across borders was a small step in the right direction. He believes that it can help bring down the walls that separate people. Along with Jewish friends, he founded a tourism company to bring people to Jerusalem with two guides, one Jewish and one Palestinian, each offering a different historical perspective.

Listen to his story. It’s a small thing, and tourism won’t solve the world’s problems, cause a huge reduction in the divisiveness we are seeing today, or result in everyone being willing to put aside their differences. But a small thing is a step, and steps are what we need.

Just A Thought on Why We’re Here on This Blog

Sometimes we write more often, sometimes we write less often. I know according to the “rules” for blogs, one of us should be writing something every week. We don’t follow that “rule”; we write when we think we have something to say — sometimes several times/month, sometimes less often. Sometimes we write something major, and sometimes we share an article or graphic we think useful. Sometimes it’s something small.

I don’t exactly where my thoughts today fall in that spectrum. This isn’t a long detailed analytical post, true. But there are some serious issues beneath my thinking. Today, I’ve been thinking about why families choose to host. I’m thinking about it because it’s that time of year when the various exchange organizations are focusing on matching students to host families and submitting student applications to local U.S. high schools for approval for the coming academic year. We’ve got a few students “assigned” to our group for whom we’re responsible for finding host families, and I’ve been working on that today.

There’s been quite a bit of discussion both within and outside the international education field about the future of international youth exchange in this country. I’m not going there today — anyone following this blog will know we’re in favor of more international exchange, not less. And that’s the point of my thoughts today.

For those who can’t do much international traveling – and for those who can as well – hosting an international student in your home is a way to become a little familiar with another culture. Hosting isn’t just about the teenager or young adult having an adventure. It’s about learning the differences in how people around the world communicate. It’s about making a large, impersonal world a smaller, more connected place. It’s about our future.

old fashioned globe partial viewContact us at info@exchangemom.com or read through our blog archives to learn more about hosting. Do some research in your area and call a few exchange organizations operating in your region. Take the plunge, and host a student. Will you develop a long-lasting relationship? We hope so. What’s really important is that you will learn something. You’ll learn about communication, flexibility, adapting to another person, how other people think, and more.

Hosting If You Don’t Have Children: Why Not?

An acquaintance asked me recently, “what is it like to host an exchange student if you don’t have any children in the home?” It’s a question we get sometimes. People worry that perhaps they are not qualified to be a host family if they don’t have children living at home.

What’s the answer? Well, it’s like any family that has one child in the home who happens to be a teenager. That’s the nutshell response.

The longer answer is that every family is different, and every host family is different. So hosting an exchange student is different for every family, regardless of whether you have teens in the home already, whether you have young children, whether you have adult children who no longer live in the home, or whether you have no children at all. If you are reading this blog post, I’m sure you can think of families you know who have one child in the home. Are all of those families alike? Of course not. Are they still a family, with one child? Of course they are.

For some people who don’t have children in the home, having an exchange student means having an excuse to travel around their region when they haven’t done that before (or at least haven’t done it in a while) and showing the area to their student. Another host family will host a student and maybe cannot travel much for a variety of reasons — and they and their student will still have a positive experience, learning about each others’ world. For some parents, having an exchange student when you don’t have children in the home is a way to learn what having a teenager is like. For others, it’s a way to keep liveliness in the home; perhaps their children are adults and the parents like having the energy of teens in the home. Other parents enjoy having their student to themselves and being able to have deep personal conversations that might not be possible with multiple children running around; many students find that having their host parents to themselves has benefits as well.

We’ve hosted over a dozen exchange students, starting when our children were in elementary school and continuing when they were in college and beyond. As a result, we’ve had students whose memories of our family is that of being the older teen with younger host siblings, students whose memories are that of having host siblings close to their own age, and students who remember a family with adult children who sometimes come to visit.

Our life with each exchange student was different every year — and our life was different from other host families in similar circumstances. One year with younger children, maybe we traveled quite a bit. The next year, maybe not. One year with no children in the home, we did lots of things as a family. Another year, our student would be very active at school and in the community. The dynamics, activities, and relationships differ for so many reasons — not just due to whether there are multiple children in the home.

Each family is unique, and your relationship with your student will be unique. Don’t host just because you do or do not have children in the home. Host because it opens up your world, teaches you about another culture, and helps you establish new relationships. Host because you want to share your home and your world.

Photo credits: Christopher Harris, Pixabay

The Sun Did Rise Today, and Will Rise Again Tomorrow

We wanted to share a message we sent to the exchange students in our region this morning…

Dear Students,

The U.S. presidential election is over. It’s been a wild ride, one that you have been privileged to witness — yes, privileged, no matter which candidate you were hoping would win. It has been one of the most contentious, divisive campaigns this country has seen…believe it or not, it’s not the most contentious or the most divisive election in our history. It has brought to the surface the “high’s” of living in a democracy, and, we’re sad to say, it also has brought out some “low’s.” You may live with a host family who are rejoicing this morning, or you may live with a host family who are worrying about the future. All of your host families, regardless of who they voted for, are citizens of this democracy.

It’s the future we want you to think about, as well as the present. Now, the next phase begins. This, too, is part of the “American experiment” — what happens after a major election, even when half the population voted for someone else? You are here to witness that. Over the next few months, you will see the peaceful transition of power to a completely different group of leaders; President Obama noted this morning in his address to the nation that “the peaceful transition of power is one of the hallmarks our democracy.”

You will see peaceful disagreement with the policies of those leaders. You will, no doubt, also see less-than-peaceful disagreements. As President Obama also noted, democracy can be “messy.” The divisiveness mentioned above is significant, and it’s serious. It means we have a lot of work to do, both here in the U.S. as the new Administration takes office — as well as abroad, with you, your families, and your home cultures. You are part of what it’s all about.

We encourage all our students to talk to their host families about the meaning of the U.S. election and the meaning of democracy, open political discussion, free speech, and civil disobedience. All of these issues are part of what we hope you are learning during your exchange. Talk to your local program coordinator. Talk to us, too. As you no doubt have learned, Americans love to talk about these issues. What’s most important after yesterday is that it we all must continue to talk about these issues, and more.

 

Photo credit: Aaron Burden

Travel and Culture: The Road Trip of Exchange and Study Abroad

When I’m out and about, whether it be at a single day event or traveling for a weekend or a week, I think of all the things I like to share with students about our country and our life. A road trip, such as the one we did just a few weeks ago, brings that home.

Our trip took us from Portland, Oregon, through eastern Oregon, into Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, and finally Colorado. We saw major changes even on the first day. In the space of a few hours, we left our bustling metropolitan area of more than two million people, drove through the beauty and dramatic scenery of the Columbia River Gorge, and watched the countryside change from lush green to arid rangeland — without ever leaving the state of Oregon.

Jumping Off the Cliff . . . Into an Exchange

In Twin Falls, Idaho, we watched for a while as people parachuted off the famous Perrine Bridge into the Snake River Canyon. Perrine Bridge is one of the few locations where BASE jumping (the term for this kind of parachute jumping from a fixed object such as a bridge) is permitted year-round. I thought of our students as we watched the jumpers on an incredibly clear sunny day. Our students are as prepared as they can be with their packs of knowledge and pre-arrival preparation. They can see ahead, as the jumpers can see the canyon and the river bank below them. They think they have a clear view of what will come next. They have an idea of the terrain.

BASE jumping Perrine Bridge
Photo credit: Chris McNaught, Twin Falls, Idaho. Perrine Bridge BASE Jumping, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5533192

Yet that’s all it is — an idea. Even though they can see what lies ahead, they don’t really know what kind of landing they will have. Smooth and easy, gliding straight to the desirable flat grassy area? A bit hard on the knees due to misjudgment? A water landing?

Some will give up after a bad landing (a difficult initial adjustment or tough problems at school). Some will pick themselves up and jump again, learning from their mistakes. Some will find it all exhilarating. Some will argue that a water landing is awful (a tough time in a big city when you’re used to a small town, perhaps). Some will argue, as did some of the jumpers we met, that a water landing isn’t bad. It’s just a different experience.

The Same . . . But Different

As we drove through eastern Oregon, western Idaho, a short zig in and out of Utah, northern Wyoming, and finally western Colorado, I thought of friends and colleagues who live in these places. We’re connected by common language and culture, and our students from Europe and Asia think of all of us — whether we’re from Oregon, Idaho, Utah, or anywhere else in the U.S. — as being the same. Yet we’re not — or, perhaps, more accurately we’re all the same and yet we’re all different. We are separated by different twists in the English language and different local cultural norms, resulting from different local upbringings and totally different landscapes. A day’s drive may result in our never leaving the state in which we live, and so we are still in familiar territory. But we have reached a different world and so we’re in an unfamiliar land.

Wyoming
Green River, Wyoming

It’s hard to get used to different cultural expectations and a world that does not look anything like the world you are used to seeing outside your family home. I have to honestly ask myself if I could live in the wide open spaces of Wyoming for a year, when most of my life has been with an ocean within reach. Yet we ask our students to do exactly this, and more.

We know our students sometimes have a hard time adjusting to their host family and host community. Teens from large cities don’t know what to do when they arrive in a small town. Students from small towns are often bewildered when their host family lives in an urban area. Students who grew up with multiple siblings have some difficulty living in families with no children in the home. Students with no siblings have to learn how to share space when they’ve never done that before.

We “get it” perhaps more than they know. We hope we can show them how to navigate through it and enjoy their extended “road trip.” We hope, certainly, that we can help show them something of the vastness of the world we live in — not just the size and diversity of the United States as a place, but also the differences even within a place that many characterize as a single culture. If we can teach them that it’s more complex than that, and that the same is true of people and places everywhere, we’ll have succeeded. That’s what makes travel so exhilarating and exploration of other places so much fun.

RV at wooded campsite
Home for a week . . . Golden, Colorado

 

Photos Copyright 2016 Laura Kosloff, except as noted