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PORTLAND, Ore. -- Conventionally, conference sessions serve a purpose of further orienting participants into the accepted language and landscape of a shared profession. More rarely does a conference session for a professional association feature the opposite goal – to thoroughly rip apart the rhetoric and deconstruct a field’s founding myth.

“Quite frankly and simply I’m going to try to deconstruct the notion we hear all over the place -- that study abroad changed my life,” Michael Woolf, president of the Foundation for International Education, in London, said Thursday at the Forum on Education Abroad’s fifth annual conference. (The session Woolf led was titled, appropriately, “Study Abroad Changed My Life and Other Problems.")

“We like to hear that,” Woolf said. “The person who says that is usually enlightened, usually talented, will usually describe themselves as a global citizen. I’m not trying to be cynical about that individual, but the sentence to me is very problematic. ... It postulates the primacy of self, it prioritizes a first-person perspective.... it’s a wholly natural thing to do but it’s not one that sustains the innate seriousness of our endeavor.”

Woolf challenged the sentence in context of the growing commercialization of education, and criticized the passivity the sentence implies – in which the student is “the passive recipient of the envisaged life-changing process" (a process, in this case, that’s been purchased).

“It masks a complex set of issues; it’s entirely undiscriminating, first of all, as though abroad was one discrete location. What did you study, where did you study, how did you study.... If you say 'I changed my life by studying x and y,' the priorities are reversed.”

It’s more than a matter of semantics, Woolf stressed, saying it’s a very different thing to want to study in London because of all its innate attractiveness or to want to study race and ethnicity there because it’s the most diverse city in the world.

And Woolf didn’t stop there – he went on to deconstruct another term that’s been in vogue of late, “global citizen.”

“The idea is an oxymoron. We’re citizens of a country. We’re not citizens of a globe because we can’t be,” he said, adding, “If we tell ourselves we’re educating students to be global citizens by sending them to Paris for four weeks, we’re setting ourselves up for failure.”

Woolf (who prefers the term cosmopolitanism) was not merely being contentious for the sake of it, but because he said the field of study abroad is burdened and even imperiled by the perpetuation of uncontested myths and misconceptions. “We’ve layered this field with exaggeration, hyperbole. We’re burdening ourselves with expectations that in the end are going to come back to bite us because they’re not real and they’re not true," he said.

“The study abroad endeavor is ultimately, I think, too important to allow unreasoned assertion to rest untroubled at the center of unexamined rhetoric.”

One of Woolf's two co-presenters, John Battenburg, likewise questioned how ready study abroad administrators are to believe their students' rhetoric. "Is it convincing when a 20- or 22-year old student with few life experiences talks about study abroad as a life-transforming experience?" asked Battenburg, an English professor and director of international education and programs at California Polytechnic State University.

“I think one of the problems is in asking these questions prematurely. We many times do it for purposes of assessment and learning outcomes. So we have these numerical scales and we often try unsuccessfully to discover whether and how students have been transformed," Battenburg said.

Ask students why they wanted to go abroad and you hear, “'I wanted to ski, I wanted to drink beer, I wanted to meet women' -- that’s why they go abroad. But we ask these questions and we believe their answers," Battenburg said.

The third presenter, Monica Pagano, director of study abroad at Loyola Marymount University, in California, introduced the concepts of “critical unhappiness" and "educational resilience" to the discussion, arguing that exposure to adversity, and some level of uncertainty, discomfort, and even boredom (but not physical pain) can contribute to positive learning outcomes.

“In reality I want them to be happy, but to be happy they have to go through a degree of unhappiness," Pagano said.

In keeping with the unconventionality of the session, Woolf didn't invite audience questions. He did, however, invite members of his standing-room only audience to stand up and speak -- open mic style. They challenged some of what he and his co-presenters said, but also struggled with its applicability in their day-to-day lives where students in fact are sometimes thought of as customers to be retained, and kept happy. As one study abroad official from a Midwestern university put it, "Really, in my office what we're assessing is student satisfaction."

Also, she said, "I'm the one who takes the call when a student is unhappy that says, 'Make the student happy.'"

Some other comments:

  • One marketing director for a study abroad provider admitted feeling conflicted, and referenced the presenters' disparagement of the idea of selling study abroad like an amusement park experience. “I’m conflicted because we serve a market and an audience that wants a ticket to a thrill ride, the majority of them," the marketer said. “I’m conflicted about the message I should send now on my Web site and in my literature. Do I risk losing some customers by saying, 'I changed my life by studying abroad in such and such location about such and such,' or do I say 'Study abroad changed my life. Apply now.' "
  • Another audience member responded that the marketer had no obligation to change the provider Web site. Instead, the responsibility lies with universities to determine “how and for what purpose they want their students to go abroad. It might end up that you would lose customers the other way because universities would say you can’t go on those programs because they’re more tourism than education."
  • On another note on marketing, the director of a Midwestern study abroad office added: “Oftentimes when we have these dialogues they tend to be at the level of management or leadership or professorial, and a lot of the marketing that’s going on, some of it generated by our own faculty … is where we start the problem," she said, citing, for example, fliers about seeing a "real" destination. "What do you promise when you say you’re going to the real place as opposed to the unreal places in that country?"
  • One participant criticized Woolf's use of the word cosmopolitanism as an alternative to global citizen. “One challenge is not to get rid of one such rhetoric and substitute it for another. I think the term cosmopolitan for example has many of the same problems that global citizen does. Think about the root of cosmopolitan. That has traditionally been a term used for a very privileged class. ... I’m wondering whether what we need to do is make sure all our terms are on the table for critical reflection."

One audience member wondered aloud about the wisdom of disabusing study abroad of the expectation of transformation, an expectation that students typically don't bring to their college educations anymore.

Higher education as a whole “has ceased to be a place that students go there and it’s going to change my life," said Mark S. Scheid, president and CEO of Tan Tao University, an institution being established in Vietnam. “The thing that’s valuable about study abroad in my opinion is it’s one of the places where you expect that what’s going to happen to you is going to be transformative."

“As you say it’s not always pleasant and that’s what makes it work," said Scheid. "There are moments in study abroad that I call the 'finger-in-the-wall-socket experience.' You’re aware that something has happened, you may not like that moment but you will always learn something valuable to you -- about wall sockets if nothing else."

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