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.

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

 

The Meaning of Global Citizenship

I love infographics….This one covers a wide range of sub-topics under the general heading of “raising your child in today’s global world.” It includes data on the increase in cross-border trade; companies expecting employees to work abroad; and interest of young people today in working abroad. It raises briefly issues such as:

* How do you learn how to think about global problems?

* How can you be prepared to be successful anywhere?

* How can you learn how to be a problem-solver, not just a repository of data and statistics?

For those who just like to click on the link and see the “original”: A Passport to Global Citizenship.
A Passport to Global Citizenship Infographic
Find more education infographics on e-Learning Infographics

An Exchange Student Wedding

My wife, Jenn, and I spent this past Saturday at the marriage of my former exchange student, Nha, from Vietnam. Nha spent the 2003-04 school year with my family through EF High School Exchange Year. She returned to the U.S. to go to college and recently started working at Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU).

It was a lovely ceremony, held mostly in Vietnamese. It was followed by a wonderful reception, with all sorts of tasty and interesting dishes from Nha’s homeland.

weddingThe only phrase I remember in Vietnamese from my year with Nha was “cam an,” which means “thank you.” Some of the food was familiar, but some—being celebration food—was new, such as the chicken dish and two whole roasted pigs. The ceremony itself had some differences from what I’m used to, including a sort of karaoke performed by the wedding party.

After we left, Jenn pointed out that our experience in a crowd full of happy, talkative, outgoing strangers, separated by a language barrier, was probably a good deal like the experience of a new exchange student. There was no shortage of good will and desire to communicate, but it was very hard to understand everything that was going on in overwhelmingly unfamiliar surroundings.

We realized that this is what it must feel like to students who have just arrived in their host country.

I found—the way a person who has one sense dulled notices other senses strengthening—that I was paying closer attention than usual to body language to figure out what people were doing. Smiles and gestures got us through most everything; things like table assignments at the reception required more careful and detailed translation.

New students go through this same process as their English skills develop. Misinterpretations are part of the learning process.

The wedding ceremony was held under the auspices of a relatively familiar religious affiliation, so its rhythms and progress were relatively easy to follow. However, the language barrier wiped away any distinctions between what might have been a cultural practice and what was there simply because the two young people at the altar wanted it that way.

That confusion is what we see with our exchange students. What’s culturally American and what is peculiar to our households becomes indistinguishable, and can cause students to make assumptions that they later find to be invalid.

The ingredients in the wedding food were largely familiar, but prepared and seasoned in unfamiliar ways. The overall flavor and texture palette were at turns delightful and off-putting. Hunger, and a desire to be gracious, overcame some of our nervousness…but some differences are just too much to overcome. Chicken feet are past my limits.

A student sitting down to her first few American meals must experience the same thing. Processed cheese slices may be beyond our students’ ability to deal with unfamiliar tastes.

By the end of the evening, watching Nha dance with her new husband (I stayed dry-eyed up until I saw her starting to cry during that dance, I swear!), and seeing the joy in the little interactions between friends and family, it was clear that no matter how different they were from us, it was far easier to see the humanity that unites us all than to focus on the cultural and individual differences between us.

Our students have the same experience, as they grow to know the warmth of our hearts and our homes.

Nha’s wedding offered a powerful lesson in understanding the struggles—and the rewards—our students face, particularly in the early days of their time with us. It was a reminder to Jenn and me to be patient and compassionate in helping them through the period of culture shock and of the shared joy that awaits on the far side.

Lars D. H. Hedbor is an amateur historian, home brewer, astronomer, fiddler, linguist, and baker. His fascination with the central question of how the populace of the American Colonies made the transition from being subjects of the Crown to citizens of the Republic drives him to tell the stories of those people, whether in television appearances, classroom presentations, or in the pages of his Tales From a Revolution novels. Hedbor lives in Beaverton, Oregon, with his wife, Jennifer Mendenhall, and five daughters. Lars and Jennifer are exchange student coordinators for EF High School Exchange Year.

What’s More Important, Our Differences or Our Similarities?

I found myself agreeing with an article I read this morning and thought it was worth a quick share on this Friday afternoon. We work hard in our role as exchange coordinators to get our students to recognize differences between their home country’s culture and their host culture here in Oregon and the United States. It’s important, for example, to know how to approach someone new appropriately, and to recognize if your own culture and language are direct or indirect in communication style. But we also try to get the teens and their host families to see similarities and common interests. It’s a good way to start communication and to begin developing relationships.

Image courtesy of Andy Molinsky
Image courtesy of Andy Molinsky

Read the article, and let us know what you think!

Focusing on Similarities – not Differences – is the Key To Crossing Cultures

Reverse Culture Shock: What Language Do You Dream In?

One of the things we think about at this time of year is the fact that our students will be returning home soon. We’ve written about that before; see, for example, Tips for Exchange Students: I’m Ready to Go Home, I’m Not Ready to Go Home and 10 Quick Tips for a Successful End to the Exchange Year. Readers who haven’t hosted an international student or who haven’t lived abroad for long periods of time might not understand at first that there might be issues to talk about. After all, wouldn’t it be good to return home after a long time away?

But returning home can be more complicated than you might think.

We see these complications in the high school exchange students we work with each year. They feel comfortable now in their host families and in their host communities, but they’re still “foreigners.” Yet they don’t feel exactly German, Brazilian, or Australian anymore, either. They don’t really know what to expect when they return home. Will their friends be jealous of the experiences they have had? Will their parents be upset that their teen is more independent than before? Will their boyfriend/girlfriend have moved on? They miss their parents and friends, but they know they will miss their host families and new friends here. Yes, they look forward to going back home. They also want to hold on to the life they have developed in their host country.

The disorientation often begins before a traveler returns home. Many of our students are beginning even now—three months before most of them will leave the U.S.—to share their confusion and anxiety. The mixed feelings can continue for a long time afterwards, as well.

Reverse Culture ShockMany people have written about “reverse” culture shock, a term pinned to the disorientation people feel about re-immersion into life back home after a significant amount of time abroad. You might think that one more book couldn’t add anything new. Perhaps that’s true. H.E. Rybol’s new book, Reverse Culture Shock, may not add anything new. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t add anything useful. It does, and there’s a difference.

“Reverse culture shock” does not have a simple, one-sentence definition or solution. Rybol explores what this concept means through reflections and personal stories. It’s an easy read – and at the same time a difficult one. Rybol covers her own experience, as perhaps is the best way to explore an issue that is deeply personal. She covers the challenges of living abroad, as you cannot talk about the impacts of returning home without bringing in what happens before you go home. She talks about comparing cultures when you’ve experienced cultures that seem so different. She looks at the impacts on friendships. She talks about how immersion in a second language can confuse the brain (have you ever switched languages several times in the same sentence?).

Our students, who come to the U.S. to spend 5 or 10 months immersing themselves in our culture, often tell us what Rybol describes. They go home and friends tell them they have an American accent — something that they have perhaps worked hard to achieve during their time here, but which now seems like something negative. They struggle to express themselves in their own language after being immersed in English for so long; one of our own students related to us a few years ago how he got off the plane and walked into the airport terminal to a circle of family and friends — and for a moment, could not remember a word of German.

Upon returning home, our students—like Rybol—say they think about things differently. This can range from different ways of problem solving that is a natural outgrowth of being compelled to deal with new and sometimes challenging situations, to having a changed perspective of what “America” is all about after having lived in an American city, small town, or farm. They are not American, of course. But in a way they are no longer German, Thai, or Brazilian. They’re something more.

The return home is not seamless. This transition into “something more” can be a difficult process. Rybol talks about the return as being part of a mirror:

“When you visit your country of origin. . ., it can feel disconcerting when you realize you don’t fit in as you used to. You feel disconnected. There’s no mirror, no one reflecting that new part of you.”

Other long-term travelers have described this feeling in similar ways. Cate Brubaker, of Small Planet Studio, finds it helpful to distinguish reverse culture shock from the general re-entry process. Reverse culture shock is part of re-entry, she believes, but she does not consider them the same thing:

Re-entry, the way I see it, is a more holistic way of looking at the part of your abroad journey that occurs once you go “home.” Your abroad journey doesn’t end when you step off the plane. Your journey simply transitions from being abroad to being in re-entry.

I don’t know if Rybol would characterize it exactly the same way. But she does describe this transition as something that can be a positive experience. She talks about ways that have helped her to readjust to life back home after long periods abroad. She feels the process can teach you that going outside your comfort zone can expand your thinking and teach you new skills. It can help you understand your own culture better than you did before. It can remind you that “[f]eeling vulnerable and lost is a way to learn about the need for kindness and compassion.” In other words, it’s really part of the entire cross-cultural experience.

Reverse Culture Shock is a different kind of book. It’s not a “how-to.”  It’s reflective and personal. You may not get the answers you seek on how to deal with your feeling of anxiety, confusion, happiness, and sadness, although Rybol does give some suggestions. What you will gain, however is the perspective of somebody who has been there, who has herself experienced the ups and downs, unclear feelings, uncertainty — and the feeling that the rest of your life is better for having had this experience:

This trip helped me realize that connecting across cultures can make us kinder, more compassionate, grateful and understanding. It shouldn’t be taken for granted. Instead, we should be aware of how the effects of connecting across cultures can positively impact the lives of everyone involved. It has a ripple effect.

Reverse Culture Shock is available at Amazon. Find out more about H.E. Rybol at her website.

Photo credits: H.E. Rybol and Samuel Zeller.