Academic journal article Peer Review

Transforming the Study Abroad Experience into a Collective Priority

Academic journal article Peer Review

Transforming the Study Abroad Experience into a Collective Priority

Article excerpt

The need for more U.S. students to go abroad is now proclaimed in academic mission statements, business associations' manifestos, and even federal legislation. Gaining the knowledge, skills, and attitudes through an international experience is no longer just the interest of individual students. It has now become a priority of the collective. Why, then, has study abroad emerged as a national priority? There may be myriad explanations, but we can certainly all agree on one: globalization. The world is becoming "flat," as Thomas Friedman argued. With the explosion in communications technology and the multinationalization of production, we recognize the importance of an educated workforce becoming more knowledgeable about other cultures as essential so that the United States remains economically competitive. In the aftermath of 9/ 11, the Iraq war, and Abu Ghraib, we regard sending students abroad as one of the most effective diplomatic tools, both to improve our damaged reputation in the short term and to help resolve intractable international conflicts in the long run. In terms of the environment, health, and poverty, we know that finding global solutions to the toughest problems facing our planet depends upon armies of individuals capable of cooperating across borders.

But in the face of this dramatic growth and these sweeping changes across our society, are we in fact succeeding in developing a mass of global citizens? Are our students meeting the challenges of globalization and our priorities as a nation?


Let us begin with the bad news. The percentage of U.S. students studying abroad lags far behind that of most highly industrialized countries. As a percentage of all U.S. students, study abroad participation has actually not increased significantly over the last decade. Our students also tend to study abroad for ever shorter durations, especially as compared to their Asian and European counterparts. Fewer of our students succeed at even attaining the minimum goal of study abroad - the acquisition of intercultural competencies. Most disturbingly, while we witness substantial growth in the number of students going to centers of globalization, such as China or India, to areas of national security interest, such as the Middle East, and to countries most adversely affected by the global economy, such as in Africa and Latin America, the vast majority of students continue to choose to spend their semesters abroad in affluent European nations. Our study abroad pedagogy indeed still follows in the tradition of the European grand tour, whereby aristocratic students traveled to European capitals to supplement their liberal arts educations and to accumulate the treasures of the "Old World." Where we have succeeded in study abroad is extending its access and attraction beyond the upper economic tiers of our student bodies.

In the course of this democratization, however, study abroad has also experienced what I would label "massification." Too many of our students, if anecdotal information serves, express greater interest in filling their passports with stamps of different countries than in learning the languages of the nations in which they are studying. Undergraduates show more facility at finding the best bargains for travel and shopping - not bad skills in and of themselves - than at creating networks of peers from different cultures with whom they may end up collaborating. Many still see study abroad as a semester off, a break from the grueling demands of higher education in the Age of Globalization. They may, in fact, seek in the study abroad experience an escape from the more complicated implications of globalization, including a more competitive job market, the fading of their own national identity as exceptional, as well as effects of terrorist threats, environmental degradation, and the plight of those most suffering in the world.


Fortunately, not everything is so bleak. …

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