Reflections on 35 Years in International Education

June 24, 2008

David Larsen retires this month after 20 years at the helm of Arcadia University Center for Education Abroad, a major third-party study abroad provider with about 100 program sites in 14 countries. Larsen, who got his start in international education as a high school English teacher -- taking a group of students to Europe -- subsequently won a Fulbright to Greece, where he eventually wound up as the Greek Fulbright Foundation's executive director. "I was supposed to go there for nine months and I stayed there for eight years," he says.

So it goes.

Larsen, a well-known figure in the international education world, will continue on at Arcadia in a part-time basis as an adviser to the president. The university plans to rename the Center for Education Abroad's home "Larsen Hall," and is also raising money for an endowed study abroad scholarship in his name.

Larsen says he'll still be doing some international travel in retirement. "But I'll be doing it with my wife, who has not accompanied me on all these trips over the years."

He found time in between things -- you know how it is, he says, "You're trying to get stuff done that you've put off 20 years" -- to talk to Inside Higher Ed about trends and issues of concern in international education, including the growth of short-term programs, a need to increase access to study abroad, and increased scrutiny of the field. (Arcadia was one of a number of third-party study abroad providers to receive a subpoena last summer as part of New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo's investigation into study abroad policies and practices.)

Q: What are some of the major changes you’ve seen in the field? Is it even recognizable now to what it was then?

A: The field of international education is very different now from what it was when I got involved about 35 years ago. On campus, international education has a much higher profile than it did then. The study abroad part that I’ve been involved with recently -- but also the presence of international students and scholars on campus and changes to the curriculum -- are things that are at the fronts of people’s minds. Not just a few people working in quiet corners the way it used to be, but university leaders, and faculty as well as students. That’s just a huge change. You can see the effects of it in many if not most facets of campus life.

Q: How so?

A: One thing is the recent [American Council on Education] report indicates that 50 percent of students come to college intending to study abroad. That certainly wasn’t the case a couple of decades ago. It speaks I think very positively toward what we’ve been able to do, to open the possibility of study abroad up not just to the privileged but to a much broader spectrum of students.

Of course, it’s still a very small percentage [about 1 percent] that actually do study abroad. But that’s a growing percentage and it’s one that people are paying attention to.

Q: Why is that drop-off [from 50 to 1 percent] so great?

A: It’s college itself that gets in the way. Students come and discover fraternities and sorority life. They discover activities on campus. They discover they can make a varsity sports team, and these things interfere with plans to take a semester or year and go somewhere else.

It’s still difficult to afford study abroad for some students, and some of them don’t come across that reality until they’ve made the transition from high school to college.

Q: Your last year at Arcadia was a tumultuous one, with newfound scrutiny on the relationships between outside study abroad providers – like the Center for Education Abroad – and colleges. What are the roots of this scrutiny, do you think – and will it continue?

A: I don’t really want to speculate on the motivations of something like the subpoenas last August.

Do I think it will continue? Probably. I think people are more skeptical these days. I think people want transparency, on the part of any institutions they’re working with. And I think to the degree that transparency was absent, the scrutiny may have helped, along with the Forum on Education Abroad and its promotion of good, ethical practices, to move that forward.

Our own experience with the subpoena is that we responded promptly and fully when it arrived, and we haven’t heard anything since last September.
I can’t really speak for others on this topic.

Q: So is the field better because of some of what happened in the last year?

A: I think the leadership that was shown by the Forum on Education Abroad in bringing members together and drafting a code of ethics for study abroad was a major step forward. Obviously it was stimulated by the events of last summer.

Q: As colleges pursue plans to "internationalize" their campuses, many have of late have been developing their own faculty-led programs. Do you think this trend will continue? How do you see the role of third-party providers -- like Arcadia -- evolving?

A: I can say with certainty that colleges and universities have always had their own programs for their own students. Outside providers, like Arcadia, fill the gaps really for colleges and universities. We make a number of overseas programs available, and we go around and talk with folks at colleges and universities about our programs and where they are and what they do. What we’re trying to do is not supplant activities that are going on on campus but supplement them, by making different countries available as destinations in some cases or different institutions in different destination countries for students for whom they’re appropriate. This has always been what we do, and is what I see continuing.

Q: Do you think the role of third-party providers will expand?

A: It’s hard to predict what will happen to the role of providers. What we’re seeing now is the growth of lots of new providers. That inevitably happens in a, well to use a business term, growing market. What we’re also seeing or beginning to see are some providers that are trying to tailor programs to meet what they anticipate as a specific demand. You know, short-term programs with opportunities for home-school faculty to lead them. If that meets a need, that’s fine. I don’t think a provider like Arcadia is going to get into that area. We have built our history on enrolling students for at least a semester or an academic year, and sending them to programs that are run not by their own faculty but either by overseas institutions or by our staff and faculty hired abroad. It’s just a different model.

Q: Do you worry about the oversight of these new providers? Is there sufficient oversight in place?

A: My experience is that there is. And the oversight actually comes from the home schools of the students that we serve. If those students are going abroad and coming back with credits that don’t seem to represent any learning, home school faculties are pretty quick to respond to this.

We’ve established a long tradition of working with our faculty and our registrars, and we have our own quality assurance mechanisms internally. It’s true that some of the new providers probably don’t have some of the sophisticated mechanisms. But they are going to find out at the end of the day that students are subject to the scrutiny of faculty. And if they’re going abroad and not learning, faculty aren’t going to put up with that very long.

Q: What are the issues in study abroad you’re most passionate about, going forward?

A: Things I’m passionate about would include the Paul Simon legislation. [Approved by the U.S. House of Representatives and pending in the Senate, it would authorize $80 million annually in federal funding for education abroad.]

I may be beating a broken drum there. But I think we’re at a point in the evolution of federal support for international education where we have an opportunity to take a major step forward. And I think it’s a shame that the Congress isn’t acting, or the Senate isn’t acting, on this proposed bill.

I keep writing letters and making phone calls and talking to people whenever I can...It’s not perfect but it’s something and in this case something that’s a whole lot better than nothing. The purpose of the Simon legislation is to make funding available so that a broader spectrum of students -- again not just the privileged few -- can have the opportunity to participate in study abroad. And I think that’s right on the mark.

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges that you see ahead for education abroad?

A: I think challenges include the shift toward shorter-term programming… Faculty-led programs tend often to be short-term, and a shorter-term experience abroad is different than a longer-term experience. I think it’s very hard to do anything effective in language learning in less than a semester, or probably longer.

These are shifts that I see and I wonder what the effect is going to be. Students who are going on short-term programs -- and there’s a growing number of them -- are having a different kind of experience than students who go for a semester or longer. Again, with the goal in mind of providing a global perspective to today’s undergraduates, it remains to be seen how effective it is.

Q: The typical answer I often get when talking to your colleagues in the field about this is, 'A year abroad is great, a semester is great, but two weeks is better than nothing....'

A: It probably is better than nothing. I guess my question is how much better than nothing.

I’m not saying all short-term programs are bad. I’m just saying they will probably have a different result.

Q: In May, I attended the NAFSA: Association of International Educators conference in Washington, alongside more than 9,000 other people. You joined NAFSA in 1974 – what were the annual conferences like then?

A: My first one in Phoenix in 1979 all took place in one medium-sized hotel. It was a whole lot smaller and much less structured, if you will.

The exhibits were -- I guess I want to say -- a forgettable part of the experience. I don’t remember an exhibit hall. What we focused on were the conversations with people from throughout the country.

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