“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.

 Related Links: