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

US map with camera and compass

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.


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,

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.

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


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

Hiding in Plain Sight: The Changing Needs of Cultural Exchange

Intercultural exchange takes many forms in the United States and elsewhere. In the U.S., international exchanges at college and post-graduate levels have been underway perhaps 90 years ago or more; they gained in popularity and began to include secondary students in the years after World War II. Success of the well-known Fulbright Program—which began right after the war—probably contributed to increased interest. Several of the organizations active in international youth exchanges today have now celebrated their 50th or 60th anniversaries.

Senator Fulbright wanted to promote “international good will through the exchange of students in the fields of education, culture and science.” International exchange at the high school level has similar goals: to expose foreign teenagers to the United States with the intent of fostering long-term understanding and cooperation at a person-to-person level. Those teens return home with (hopefully) a more accurate understanding of the U.S. and positive impressions of the American people, which (hopefully) translates into better relationships between countries as those teens become adults and leaders in their own right.

think outside the box

High school exchange programs have achieved a great deal over the years, with important limitations. Spending a semester or academic year abroad is not free; in addition to program fees, most students must be prepared to pay for personal expenses during their time abroad. The result is that most students coming to the U.S. come from comfortable economic backgrounds. Many students have already been to the United States on vacations or short-term study programs. For students in some countries, it seems to have become a rite of passage more than a cultural learning exercise; if a significant number of your classmates are doing an exchange year in the U.S., then you feel the need to do it, too, without necessarily thinking about alternatives or whether it is the “right” thing for you.

So, one might ask, do we still need middle-class intercultural exchange primarily between Europe and the United States in today’s global economy and inter-connected world? Perhaps a more appropriate question might be to ask whether other intercultural experiences may have become just as important. We need to expand the concept.

In the U.S. in recent years, we have seen increasing numbers of Asian students (primarily China and South Korea) participating in incoming exchanges. Beyond that, few students of color participate, whether at the secondary or post-secondary levels. Very few come from Africa and other regions troubled by political unrest. Virtually no U.S. high school students study abroad (about 1,100 in 2013-2014 according to data from the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel). Only about 1 percent of all U.S. students enrolled at institutions of higher education study abroad. Senator Fulbright’s original goal of “international good will” calls out for attention.

YES logoThe U.S. government does directly sponsor some students; see, for example, the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program. Congress established the YES program in 2002 as a response to the events of September 11, 2001. The program encourages teens from primarily Muslim countries to participate in international education exchange in the U.S., and more than 6,000 students have participated. Since 2009, the program has also sent U.S. students to study in Muslim countries (currently about 65/year).

A different type of organizational example—but equally distinctive—is Mobility International (MIUSA), based in Eugene, Oregon. MIUSA aims to provide exchange opportunities to people with disabilities. Its projects include the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs; the organization also works with the YES program and other U.S. Department of State international exchange programs to assist students with disabilities coming to the U.S.

There is another place where intercultural exchange would be valuable, and it doesn’t require intercontinental airplane trips. Last year, the public radio show This American Life did a two-part podcast episode called The Problem We All Live With. The episode stuck with us. It made us think about another very real American need for intercultural exchange, one of a totally different nature — or is it really that different?This American Life part 2
As events in Ferguson, Missouri (and other places around the U.S.) have made clear, a massive cultural divide exists between different ethnic and economic groups in this country. In the podcast, reporter Chana Joffe-Walt interviewed a young Latina woman who went from a high school that is 1% white to a college that is 75% white. Upon reflection, the student seemed to realize during the interview just how little she knew about white culture in the United States.

Kiana Jackson: Everybody’s really friendly. And I kind of didn’t expect that as much. Just coming from like, going to school in the south Bronx and just commuting all the time, everybody’s not so friendly. And here like, everybody will stand there for like a whole minute holding the door for you till you get there. Just friendly all the time. And sometimes you’re like, you don’t know if it’s genuine, because you’re not used to it.

[Later in interview…]

Kiana Jackson: Some of the kids from my high school who are like seniors now, they’ll talk to us and be like, oh, what school should I go to? How do you like your school? The advice I give to seniors is like, OK, everybody’s going to want to be around their same kind of people.

But if you’re always in the same environment, always doing the same things with the same people, you become naive. Or like, you don’t really know about the world. It’s better if you experience something different, because you get a feel of other people. And you end up changing, you end up becoming a different person, a lot based on the community you’re surrounded by. And that’s reality. Your environment really makes you.

Kiana notes at college that people held the door open if they were entering the building immediately ahead of her. At first, she assumed this was “a white thing”; after all, she was with mostly white people. But was it really, she began to ask? Could it be a city vs suburban/rural thing? Could it be an economic thing? Could it be something else entirely?

Most white teenagers, when it comes to black and Hispanic culture, probably would have similar initial reactions. Whatever you see, must be because they’re black/Hispanic/whatever. Most of us have no idea what is “normal” in each other’s lives. How much is “white,” “black,” or “Hispanic,” as opposed to economic, urban, or rural—much less regional or country-specific?

We need to find new ways to bridge cultural divides in the United States, divides that have only been made more dramatic by the effective re-segregation of many of America’s schools in recent years. International youth exchange is great, and we would like to see more of it; we believe U.S. students and our students from other countries benefit from getting to know each other. But we believe that we need an equal effort at the domestic level. We need American high school students to be trading places with other American high school students.

A recent article, Why a Global Education Doesn’t Have to Mean Going Abroad, discussed elements of this at the university level. It reviewed several university programs that have initiated “study away” programs (as opposed to, or in addition to, “study abroad”). The article reviewed programs where students live with immigrant families in Maine; where students live with minority or immigrant families in Los Angeles before going abroad or to another culture in the U.S. such as German-speaking Amish in Pennsylvania; and a U.S.-Mexico border-studies program involving issues critical to migrant communities.

490852727 make things happenPrograms like this are just a beginning. Unfortunately, our culture and our educational system act against U.S. students being attracted to such programs. If affluent students from one part of the U.S. spent a year in less affluent schools in another part of the U.S., they would be concerned about the impact it might have on their admission to college or on their ability to play on sports teams at school. These are reasons U.S. students also give for not being able to spend a semester or academic year abroad. An additional—and likely unstated—reason will also be that students and parents are afraid, much as they are afraid to go to most Asian countries, many South American countries, and Africa.

In many ways, different parts of the U.S. are more alien to many of our children (and to adults as well) than are many European countries. That’s something we should try to do something about.

Photo credits:, YES program, This American Life.