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.

 

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

A Student’s Question: Should I be an Exchange Student?

The real question “is not whether you should do an exchange year or not, because you should. Everyone should. … The real question is, when should you do an exchange?”

6 Reasons Why You Should Do An Exchange While Still in High School (Nationality Unknown, Dec. 2014)

Yes. If you can make it happen, you should.

The purpose of educational exchange and cultural programs is to support personal growth, lead to a deeper understanding about foreign cultures, and improve international relationships. What better way to do that than to go to school in a foreign country, live with a family, and learn what daily life is like?

There is a saying in the international exchange community, “exchange is not a year in one’s life, but a life in a year.” Students return home with more maturity after having lived for so long without the cushion of family and long-time friends. They also have a better understanding of what their host country is all about, and perhaps a better idea of what the world is all about. They’ve learned about another culture, and the differences and the similarities. They know better than to believe everything they see in the media — wherever they have gone, the media coverage has no doubt not been completely accurate.

USA, Oregon,Portland, man with bicycle There are some practical reasons as well that students might find more intuitive. Thinking about what you want to do with your life after high school or college can be daunting. Spending a half or full year abroad during high school or college may help you formulate your thoughts more clearly. You can pursue interests and activities you might not have done back home; you might find out you want to pursue theater or art simply because you took an acting class at your U.S. high school. You might discover you do not, in fact, want to be a research scientist after spending six month doing a particular kind of research.

Is There Evidence That It Will Help Me?

There is a fair amount of anecdotal evidence that studying abroad in high school will help you in college applications, graduate school admissions, and job applications. Stacie Nevadomski Berdan (author of Student Guide to Study Abroad and Preparing to Study in the USA) wrote in 2013 that when she asked employers what they liked about potential applicants who had studied abroad, employers noted the ability to solve problems in situations the applicant had not dealt with, adaptability, communication skills, and knowledge of another culture.

For U.S. teens, study abroad in high school certainly would help you to stand out from the crowd in your college application process. It takes guts to choose to spend a semester or academic year abroad at any age; college admissions counselors are going to look carefully at a student who has shown he or she can do it in high school. It shows a willingness to try new things, an ability to deal with the unexpected, and a desire to learn. Similar arguments apply to college students considering a study abroad program during their undergraduate career.

Patrick Stephenson, former speechwriter for the NATO secretary-general, wrote this about his junior year of high school in Spain:

Inspired by an ancient and noble culture, I turned from a mediocre sophomore with average grades into an accomplished high school senior with an impressive academic record. The experience paved my way to Yale and a career in international politics.

He argues that U.S. students should study abroad in high school. Benefits from his point of view include learning another language and culture, improving one’s resume for college and future job prospects, learning about one’s own capabilities, and more. He emphasizes the importance in today’s global economy of having citizens who understand the world and how we all fit into the bigger picture.

What About My Parents?

High school students sometimes ask us how they can convince their parents that study abroad is a good idea. We suggest that they recognize that their parents have valid concerns and reasonable questions. Parents may well be worried about all the unknowns — a normal human response. Students can educate their parents — and themselves — by doing the research and providing parents with real information about what is involved in studying abroad.

  • Read materials on blogs (like this one!) and study abroad websites.
  • Read carefully through the websites of some of the exchange programs. Call and talk to someone and ask for details about programs and countries that interest you.
  • For some students, starting out with a short-term study abroad or exchange program might be a good way to go. Going abroad for 3-4 weeks can be one way to get used to the idea and help a nervous teen — and a nervous parent — feel more comfortable with being in a different culture and living in a strange place.

But Things Can Go Wrong!

Of course. Going to live in a foreign country in a culture that may be very different from what you are used to. Life will not be the same as getting up and going to school at home. The experience will challenge you in ways you cannot imagine ahead of time. Things will not go the way they do in the movies or on a television show. Unexpected problems can arise. That is, after all, life. Things may not go the way you want them to in your ordinary home country life, either.

passport and knapsack* You might “fail” in the sense that you do poorly academically, for example, no matter how hard you try. That does not necessarily mean that you have really “failed.” In many cases, academics are not the point of the experience. Indeed, many students don’t receive academic credit for their exchange year.

* Getting used to a different school system can be a challenge and can contribute to poor grades simply because you don’t know what is expected of you. The confusion can cause anxiety and worry that you may not do things correctly.

* Communicating in a different language on a daily basis is likely to be harder and more exhausting than you think it will before you go. You may think you understand what people around you are saying, but it will turn out you have missed key concepts. This can contribute to poor academics and difficulties in your relationships with people around you, including the people you live with.

* Making friends may be much more difficult than you thought it would be. If you’re used to having the same group of friends for years, or if you are not the most talkative person, having to make outreach to make friends can be a challenge. Foreign students often start out thinking that everyone knows they are an international student, and wonder why don’t my teachers know? Why aren’t people coming up to me to introduce themselves? Exchange students often feel that they have “failed” if they have not made friends after a month or two. We hope you can recognize that this can take time.

* Something bad could happen. Yes. Don’t live your life, however, in the fear that something could possibly happen someday, somewhere. Bad things can happen anywhere, at any time. Bad things can also happen at home, and if you stay home, you won’t meet people who could change your life, or see wonders that could affect how you view the world – or learn about other cultures and customs.

Studying abroad is, first and foremost, an instructive exercise in failure. . . . the lesson you learn — that initial setbacks, patience and work are the prerequisites for eventual success — is more important than an A in Calculus.  That lesson can’t be taught. It must be learned firsthand.  A high school year abroad is a quick and dirty way to discover just how ignorant you are. As such, it’s the door to a lifetime of learning and discovery.

Why High School Students Should Study Abroad (Patrick Stephenson, Huffington Post, March 2015)

 

 

Photo credits: Thinkstock.com, Daniel Sankowski/Unsplash

Sending Your Teenager to Turkey on Exchange: This Family Says Yes

I wanted to share an article that appeared in our local paper, The Oregonian, today:

Exchange Student Heads to Turkey With Open Mind

The article has so many valid points about why international cultural exchanges are valuable, perhaps even more today than ever before. It’s not just about an American teenager learning about a culture outside our own borders, although it is about that. It’s not just about the value of a young American woman learning about a majority Muslim county’s culture, although it is about that.

blue mosque turkey
Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

It’s about stepping outside our comfort zones and realizing that you need to be somewhere in order to really understand it. It’s about realizing that our own misconceptions about other cultures and countries are bouncing right back at us, when we have students coming in this direction who are asking whether the U.S. is a safe place. It’s about finding out the reality of who we all are.

Are YOU researching beyond the headlines?

 

Photo credit: Pixabay.com