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.

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.

Infographic of the Day: What’s Your Country “Known” For?

This graphic is a bit tongue-in-cheek…but perhaps that is a good idea right now. The truth is, we’re all a bit fatigued from political statements and international news over the past couple of weeks.

I don’t know quite what to do with this “data,” and I suppose some will say the data are a bit suspect. Perhaps — after all, being known as the country of velociraptors seems a bit … well, unusual? Perhaps not — after all, we *do* seem to have quite a few spam emails in the U.S. and perhaps we’re a more interesting target for those sending such emails.

In any event, it’s worth thinking about…and it might, at least, distract your attention for a few minutes. That might be a good thing.

You can see the original of this graphic here at: Information Is Beautiful.

This is Why We Work With Exchange Students

We have worked with high school exchange students for 10 years now — 14 if you count the several years we were “just” host parents and not coordinators! Working with teens going through cultural shock and host families going through the excitement of learning about another culture can be exhilarating. It can be frustrating. It can, at times, be disappointing. This year, two of our 39 students have had to return home early — and we’re just halfway through the academic year. A few students in our group have changed host families, each situation being completely different. Several more students and host families have concerns we are helping to (hopefully…) resolve successfully.

So why do we bother?

We bother because of the relationships we develop with students (and host families) every year. Not every student becomes a friend for life; that would not be a realistic expectation. But enough do so that we see what the experience can do for them, their host families, their teachers, and others. Teachers understand; they teach for the students who care — and for those who eventually learn to care.

I’ve included here just a few examples of those relationships. These are students who “pushed back” and students who did not. The common thread is that after the fact, they could all see some of what they gained during their exchange. (I’ve changed their names for privacy reasons.)

  • Sean lived with us for about six weeks at the beginning of the school year while we found him a permanent home in our school district. During those six weeks, he learned that we loved good European chocolate and Haribo gummies. Every year since, he and his family have sent a small annual Christmas gift containing a box of chocolate and a couple of packages of Haribo treats. He and his parents include a Christmas card with a “happy holidays” note.

This year — five years later — Sean included a hand-written note:

“It now has been five years since you allowed me to stay at your home, and yet I still don’t know how to properly express my gratitude for your many acts of kindness, even though I do think that my English has improved at least a bit!

And even though I probably gave you quite a bit of sorrow with my lack of discipline, I hope I was also able to leave behind something positive (or a deeper appreciation of Haribo!). So, once more, I hope you are all doing well and your wishes come true.”

  • Maria faced some struggles in adjusting to life in the U.S., and had to change host families during her year. By the end of the year, though, this is what she had to say:

I graduated from an American high school that became my family throughout this year. Many people say I went on a vacation. All of those people are wrong. What I learned is not comparable to what a year of regular Italian school could have taught me. I learned the meaning of setting your mind to a goal and work to reach it, I learned how to be a great leader in the community, I learned to help the others in rough times, I learned that school is not just about grades and studying but also about getting involved and participating, I learned that you don’t need to have expensive bags and shoes to be a cool person. All you need is yourself and a lot of positivity to transmit to people. I learned that is not cool making fun of people, I learned how much joy can give you volunteering and supporting the special ones, I learned that you always have to learn….

  • Andrea lived in a small town in Oregon in a host family with two small children. As she left, she wrote:

The past ten months have been the best time of my life so far and never ever will I forget the memories I made here or the friends I’ve made. I love you all so so much and words cannot explain how much it hurts me to leave this wonderful place. … I know for sure that my way will take me back here sooner or later – after all, I have family here now and lots of amazing friends. I want to especially thank my family for having me this year and making me feel less like “the exchange student” but like “our family member.” … I will never forget how [my two little sisters] went from calling me their exchange student to their sister….They know I will always be their sister and I promised them that we will see each other again soon.

  • Ending with again, one of our own … Andrew constantly pushed back during his exchange year. He conveniently “forgot” house rules time and time again. We had a lot of fun, he got along with our boys, and we enjoyed having him around — those arguments could be spirited political discussions! But he argued all the time. Five or six years later, in a Skype chat on one holiday or another, Andrew said completely out of the blue:

I wanted you to know … I know how much you tried to help me. The things you said then, they make a lot more sense now. I just want you to know how much I appreciate it. It just took me a while.

So to our young friend Sean who is now (unbelievably, to a host mom…) 21 years old: We are doing well, and you have shown us that wishes do come true. One student, one teenager at a time, as expressed by a host parent after her student returned home at the end of her year:

… no matter where we all are, she remains family, [and] our mutual love and admiration continues. … Nothing changes. We are still family, a larger family than before.

Exchange Student Notes: What’s the Most Important Thing to Know Before I Go?

Sometimes students ask their coordinators questions about life in the host country even before students arrive. Many of those questions are practical: how long is the school day? Are there classes I have to take? Can I be a senior even if I’m not a senior back home? Does my school require me to wear a uniform? Can I go to a concert or other places by myself? Can I get my driver’s license?

From a teenager’s point of view, these are important questions. We try to answer those questions to help students have a better idea about those practical sides of life, and to help them feel a little more comfortable — a little less anxious — about what’s to come. Knowing a bit about what to expect at school, for example, can help reduce nervousness about that particular unknown.

But we also try to instill in our new soon-to-be-students something more basic, something that underlies all those practical questions. What, really, is the most important thing for students to know?

The most important thing is to communicate. That means talking — to everyone around you in your host country, not just your parents and friends back home. It means asking questions — to your host parents, your host siblings, your teachers at school, your coordinator, other students you meet. It means explaining what you are saying to others, because your English is not likely yet to be the best. It means asking people to repeat or explain what they are saying to you, to make sure you understand.

Let’s emphasize that…

Ask questions

Don’t assume you that you understand. If you have missed words in a sentence — ask the person to repeat or explain. There is a huge chance that the words and phrases you miss will be important to understanding the entire sentence. Even if you understand the words, you may not understand the context. Culture is different, and languages don’t always translate words into the “right” meanings. Your brain may be able to translate the English words into German, Spanish, or Japanese — but the entire intent of what was just said to you may mean something entirely different.

Learn to talk to your teachers

The cultural “normal” for how one acts in school with other students, teachers, and administrators may be very different from what is normal in a student’s home country. In the U.S., teachers are generally approachable and consider questions from students appropriate — even desirable and expected. Teachers may be available both before and after the class itself for students to come and ask questions. Students will probably need to turn in homework assignments on a regular basis and will receive grades on those assignments, which may be different from back home. Don’t assume that it is OK not to turn in a homework assignment, just because you don’t remember the teacher saying anything about turning it in. You may not have heard, because (whether you realize this or not) your brain is working furiously to hear and translate, and you probably can’t keep up. Your brain may not have translated the English properly, or the teacher may assume you know the requirements.

Ask for help if you don’t understand an assignment — don’t make guesses. Perhaps making a guess is normal for you back home — but you’re not back home. Perhaps turning in assignments at the end of the school term is normal back home — but you’re not back home. Perhaps turning in a poorly done work product is not a good thing to do back home — but you’re not back home. Students will tell us, “I was going to re-do it and turn it in at the end of the month.” They assume that’s OK — but it’s not. Students will tell us, “I didn’t turn it in because I know it was not done right, so I was going to try to fix it first.” They assume that’s OK — but it’s not. Doing poorly is better than getting a 0% and will likely get you some points for effort. The experience may teach you more than you think about the subject.

Talk to your program’s local contact person

We are not just here for if you get in trouble; students often think that until something happens, and then they’re surprised we have ideas and suggestions on how to help things get better. Your coordinator is not just here to tell you the rules about what you cannot do — we know, of course, we have to tell you that, too, but we’re here to help you with what you *can* do, and to give you ideas on how to do well and be happy. Your coordinator can answer questions and help explain how things are different from back home. Your coordinator can help you explain your feelings and perspective to your host family if you are having difficulty communicating.

Don’t suffer in silence

So what’s the most important thing you need to know as an exchange student? The answer is that you’re not alone. You’ve got help along the way, whether the question is about homework, social life, or problems at school or in your host family. But you need to ask. You need to talk. You need to explain what your feelings are and you need to remember that you might need to explain yourself in several ways and several times. Your host parents, your school, your program contact — they can’t answer your questions, help you adjust to a different world, or help you solve a problem if you don’t communicate to them anything about the problem or the question.

It will be worth it if you do:

“Many people say I went on a vacation this year. All of those people are wrong. What I learned is not comparable to what a year of regular Italian school could have taught me. I learned the meaning of setting your mind to a goal and work to reach it, I learned how to be a great leader in the community, I learned to help the others in rough times. I learned that school is not just about grades and studying but also about getting involved and participating. I learned that you don’t need to have expensive bags and shoes to be a cool person. All you need is yourself and a lot of positivity to transmit to people. I learned how much joy you can give volunteering … I learned that you always have to learn.”

–A student from Italy, 2014-2015  

Photo credits: Harsh Jadav, Andrew Neel.

International Education Week 2016

Today is the beginning of International Education Week 2016, an annual joint initiative of the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Education to talk about the benefits of international education and exchange worldwide.

To help kick off International Education Week, the Institute of International Education (IIE) released its annual Open Doors Report today. Lots of interesting facts and figures! Among other things, the number of international students studying in the U.S. has now surpassed one million. The number of U.S. students studying abroad also increased, for a total of about 313,000 during 2014-2015.

Explore some of the data yourself at the IIE website. To find out more about the Open Doors Report or activities connected with International Education Week, check out these hashtags on social media platforms: #OpenDoorsReport and #IEW2016.

iie-graphic