“Why Encourage Your Teen to Study Abroad”

“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”

 – Maya Angelou, Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now

90% of American college students miss out on an international education experience.

I attended the Institute of International Education (IIE) inaugural Summit on Generation Study Abroad™ in Washington, DC.  IIE is campaigning to increase the number of U.S. students who pursue an international education and study abroad in college, by 2020.  The IIE Summit was a push to mobilize resources and commitments from not only U.S. colleges and universities, but also k-12 teachers and organizations, foreign universities, education associations, social network agencies, and country partners.

The joint effort is to significantly increase and diversify student access to global educational opportunities for the purpose of better preparing “a globally aware and culturally competent workforce.”  While the focus is study abroad, international education consists of language study, academic exchanges, service learning, family homestays, and international internships.

The number of American college students studying abroad has more than tripled over the past two decades, according to the Open Doors Report on International Exchange 2015 published by IIE.  However, less than 10% of undergraduate college students graduate with an international experience.  In an increasingly interdependent world and globalized economy, only 1 in 10 U.S. students take advantage of the opportunity that education abroad offers.

Two-thirds of study abroad participants have traditionally been White females.  For years marketing of international education programs has targeted this single population.  Underrepresented groups in study abroad are African Americans (5.6%), Hispanics (8.3%), and students with disabilities (5.7%).  Likewise, participation rates are often minimal across campuses for undergraduates coming from families where they may be the first generation to go to college.

“Students from Mid-Atlantic Consortium-Center for Academic Excellence in Jaipur Summer 2012,” American Institute of Indian Studies. Courtesy of http://www.indiastudies.org/students-from-mid-atlantic-consortium-center-for-academic-excellence-in-jaipur-summer-2012/

Study Abroad as a Resource to Open Doors

Numerous articles have been written on the benefits of study abroad.  The importance of increasing the number and diversity of students who graduate with international education experience is documented.  At stake, the issue is not simply getting more American students to study abroad for the sake of travel and tourism.  The need is for more graduates to develop the skill set to understand and collaborate with other cultures and perspectives.

In a world that is becoming smaller fueled by technology, how do we learn to live together peacefully and respect each other?  This is not a new question.  Yet, given our climate of escalated, random violence and deadly attacks and an increasing “us” versus “them” political narrative, the discussion of international education to improve intercultural competence is critical.  With ongoing conflicts and injustice, the significance of study abroad becomes learning how to promote mutual understanding, empathy, and cooperation.  Ultimately, the key is learning how to work with others without seeing difference as a problem to malign and fear.

Translated into the workplace, hiring managers want graduates to be able to demonstrate the competence of adaptability and flexibility in various situations.  Factors gained from study abroad – outside of a classroom and textbook.  Workers with personal confidence to positively respond to change and prepared to deal with the unfamiliar and unexpected.  At the IIE Summit, employers spoke of recruiting candidates with the ability to cross boundaries and borders to develop relationships.  “Currently, 1 in 5 American jobs are tied to international trade,” as reported by IIE.

What the Experts Say

In a statement posted about the IIE initiative, IIE’s President Dr. Allan E. Goodman, remarked, “International experience is one of the most important components of a 21st century education.”  IIE attests, “Studying abroad is one of the best ways undergraduate and graduate students gain the international experience necessary to succeed in today’s global workforce.  And studying in another country prepares students to be real contributors to working across borders to address key issues in the world we share.”

Additionally, public policy recommendation from NAFSA:  Association of International Educators states, “Studies show there is a positive correlation between students who study abroad and higher grade point averages and degree completion rates.”  NAFSA is a leading nonprofit organization dedicated to international education and exchange.  Study abroad works because it helps the traveler develop problem solving and analytical capabilities.  Ingrained assumptions are challenged and perspectives are expanded to ready teens to compete in an interconnected, technology-driven competitive economy.

Study abroad can be a life-changing experience.  It promotes meaningful interactions that may not have otherwise occurred due to cultural immersion and engagement.  World Learning President and CEO Ambassador Donald Steinberg commented, via World Learning (dksteinberg).  “The principle @WorldLearning was built on is more true than ever:  ‘You learn to live together, by living together.’”  16 Nov 2015, 6:45am.  Tweet.

Promote Nontraditional Locations

I will never forget my study abroad experience in Salvador, Brazil when I stayed with a Brazilian host family.  I did a short-term Portuguese language immersion program during the summer 2001.  At first, it was intimidating to stretch outside my comfort zone and navigate a foreign environment.  Yet, trying new things and taking risks was exhilarating.  I chose Brazil, a nontraditional destination outside Western Europe.  “An overwhelming majority of U.S. study abroad takes place in Europe with almost 40% of students studying in just four countries:  United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, and France,” according to NAFSA.

Post graduate school, with a Fulbright U.S. Student Program research grant, I returned to Brazil for nine months.  I developed a richer understanding of Latin American culture and politics and strengthened my Portuguese language skills.  Today, I still maintain contact with my host-country friends.

Courtesy of Zipporah Slaughter

Courtesy of Zipporah Slaughter

The Takeaway

Parents can plant the seed in teens to pursue study abroad options in high school, college, or during the gap year between secondary school and higher education.  Exchange programs are not solely for a select few classmates.  Financial constraints, family obligations, and a lack of awareness often keep students from studying overseas.  Yet, schools offer scholarships.  A major development in education abroad is the rise in the number of short-term programs that are considered one- to eight-weeks in length (less than a term), for travelers to leave home to access another culture and educational opportunity.  Short-term programs can offer a first successful step to essential international education for more American students.

Courtesy of http://cetacademicprograms.com/programs/vietnam/

Action Steps:

  • Encourage your teen to visit their high school career office and request guidance from the study abroad advisor or career counselor.
  • Talk with foreign language teachers about opportunities for exchange programs.
  • Ask study abroad alumni why they felt the experience was important to their education and how they overcame academic, personal, and financial barriers to realize their goal.
  • Seek the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program founded in 2000, which offers financial support for study and intern abroad to recipients of Federal Pell Grants at a two-year or four-year college or university.

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“Silent Retreat at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit”

Have you ever just wanted to get away from it all?  Leave the world behind you and commune with God?  Have you needed spiritual clarity?  For my birthday this year, I wanted to get away.  Yet, I was not drawn so much to my usual birthday pursuits of travel or a spa vacation or the beach.  I was yearning for what I did not know at the time was for something more peaceful and serene.  I needed to withdraw to a quiet place to nourish my spirit.  I was seeking inner guidance and answers to the question of, “What speaks to me now?”

IMG_0970I went to the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia for a silent spiritual retreat weekend.  I have to admit that I was skeptical.  This seemed a little odd, kind of airy-fairy.  I was going to be with strangers from Friday to Sunday, sleep in a dorm-like room, share meals in silence, and attend prayer services with monks.  I was not sure what to expect from the experience.  This was a Catholic order.  I am not Catholic.  The friend who referred me to the Monastery retreat did not say anything about faith being an issue.

The retreat was about downshifting from daily commotion and listening to that still, small inner voice – not the heckler – but the one in my gut that never steers me wrong.  The inner voice can easily be drowned out by noise and busy-ness.  I was reminded of the scripture reference, “Be still and know that I am God.”  Being still is a spiritual practice that can take the form of any faith.  This was not a religious journey or quest.  It was about getting quiet enough to hear my inner voice, my intuition, and to receive the clarity and guidance to go forth in a direction that best fits me.

Place of Peace

Throughout the weekend, I felt at peace.  The atmosphere was quiet.  When people spoke like at the front desk in the lobby or even amongst the friends that were on the retreat together, it was generally soft above a whisper, so as not to disturb others.  My to-do list stopped rattling around in my head.  I was not constantly checking my cell phone for emails and text messages.  It was a low-tech weekend.  There was no TV, no radio, no loud talking, not even the sound of passing cars.  The pace of everything slowed and became contemplative.  I sat on a bench outside and watched moving clouds and admired my toe nail polish.  Monastery groundsInstead of rushing from one place to the next, I was mindful of my surroundings.  I ate in silence with the other guests.  At first, it was strange not to have some conversation.  But then, as the weekend progressed, it was actually a relief not to have to come up with a conversation topic.  We could enjoy the solitude and be alright.  There was nothing wrong.  I was particularly moved by this young couple who would wait on one another to arrive at their dining table, and then bow their heads to bless the food in silence.  They walked the campus holding hands speechless.  Not all couples would be able to spend a weekend living with strangers and not have any conversation at all.

The accommodations in the Monastery were basic – two twin beds, one desk, a chair, linen, shared single-sex bathroom and separate shower area.  I had an ample size room to myself.  Of the 24 weekend participants, there was a 2 to 1 ratio of women to men, and singles to married couples, a sprinkling of racial and ethnic diversity, and the age range varied from young adult college students to Baby Boomers.  For most, like me, it was their first time spending the night in a monastery.  For a few, they were hooked and had participated in several of the retreats and could attest to the atmosphere of silence to feel renewed and recharged.

The grounds of the Monastery and surrounding buildings consisted of ample trees and sprawling lawns.  Even though the Monastery was only thirty minutes outside of Atlanta, the peacefulness made it seem as I was much further away from the city.  The Monastic Heritage Center, Historic Museum, Abbey Store, and a bonsai garden are all situated on the Monastery campus.

The church bells rang at 7:00am for the Sunday morning service.  The low monotone singing of the Psalms from the monks was a far cry from Gospel music of the Baptist church.  One of the monks who lead several prayers had a baritone voice reminiscent of the characterized sound of God commanding Moses at the burning bush in Cecil B. DeMille’s classic “The Ten Commandments.”  I sat up straighter on the hard high-back wooden benches and was more attentive with this monk’s prayer.

Cistercian Monks

I did not know much at all about Cistercian monks or their way of life before arriving at the Monastery.  Dressed in a religious habit of white robe with a black overlay like a protective apron, the monks represented a brotherhood of discipline, order, and atmosphere of silence.  They exuded an inspiring calm and peaceful nature.  Monks (of the Cistercian order known as Trappists) are obedient to the call from God and their monastic vows.  The original emphasis of the Cistercian monastic life was on simple manual labor and self-sufficiency, with traditional abbeys supporting themselves through agriculture.  Today, Cistercian monks spend their lives singing the psalms, leading the sacred scriptures, fasting, praying, serving others, working with their hands in order to give alms sociably and charitably, and living together in a community sincerely seeking God.

Self-Confrontation Workshop

I participated in a scheduled workshop called Self-Confrontation that was an optional part of the retreat weekend.  It served as a guide for the interior spiritual work of meditation, prayer, contemplation, and walks on the grounds.  The class was team taught by Brother Mark and Jacqueline Rychlicki.  During the workshop was the only instance when dialogue was encouraged.  The essence of self-confrontation is to slow down and become aware of your own thoughts and behaviors.  Bro. Mark stated that the focus on self-confrontation brings up questions for self-reflection:

  • How do you deal with what is in front of you?
  • What role do you play?
  • What you see in others is what is in you.

 Monastery small statuteWhat did I learn?

It would be awesome to say that I came away from the spiritual retreat weekend with definitive answers.  Quite the contrary.  The Monastery was not some magic formula to vanish my problems.  Still, I was reminded of the following spiritual gems:

  • Use the tool of silence for the courage to speak the truth, if only to yourself.
  • Silence begins from the exterior and moves to the interior by making time and creating space for solitude in order to hear your inner voice and for self-reflection.
  • Accept what life brings and come back to the mindfulness of God. To hold no bitterness is to accept all the joy that comes into your life and to accept the sorrow, but cling to none of it.
  • People really are mirrors. Whatever you see in me is already in you and invoking your own response.  For example, the presence of a monk can bring up feelings of reverence that in fact mirror your own internal wisdom.
  • Minimize the amount of criticizing of other people. You are not commissioned to correct everything and everybody in every situation.  Of course, this adage is easier said than done.

No matter what is happening around you, you still must find a way to be at peace.  That was the lesson for me.  I cannot allow the everyday stressors to get to me.  Being committed to quiet time is one of the best resources at my control.

When the silent retreat weekend was over, I so wanted to take the serenity and the solitude with me, back into the work world and all the incessant noise and distractions.  The Monastery was a safe space, a protected space.  The experience left me feeling calm and renewed.  I was in a tranquil environment that amplified a sense of well-being and peace – surroundings encouraged prayer and introspection.  Absolutely, I would go back for another silent retreat weekend, even without the scheduled workshop.  Quiet time must become more of my priority.

Monastery path

For more information on the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, visit www.trappist.net.

Introduction: Allowing More Joy

Brings me a feeling of joy

I am on a mission to cultivate more joy into my life and to uncover my passion and purpose.  The experience of joy is something that has been elusive to me.  I get easily distracted and caught up in the endless To Do list, immobilized by memories of the past, and living for some future condition or event.  I believe the adage that you cannot have joy without gratitude and appreciation.  To experience gratitude and appreciation requires being fully in the present moment, which is not always my strong point.  The reason for allowing joy is to sense feeling good more often and not succumbing to life’s inevitable discomforts that can lead to the downward spiral of discontent, frustration, and despair.

This blog space provides a platform for the challenge of 1) learning how to bring forth joy in my own everyday experiences; 2) sharing messages that uplift and encourage others; and 3) simply, exercising my writing muscles that have become sedentary, due in no small part to sheer laziness.

Throughout the next year (a feat in itself), I hope to have accomplished interesting and engaging entries that prompt conversation and positive action for like-minded readers also realizing the need to allow joy — more laughter, more play, more balance — into their own space.  We all have the capacity to enjoy our existence and often that requires a determined effort.

“Joy is what happens to us when we allow ourselves to recognize how good things really are.” ~ Marianne Williamson