Beyond Study Abroad

May 14, 2013

The University of Pennsylvania is like most colleges and universities in wanting to increase the number of its students with international experiences. But while many institutions have focused on increasing their study abroad numbers -- and a select few colleges and schools have even implemented requirements that students study overseas -- Penn has made a particularly big push on promoting noncredit international internships and post-graduation work opportunities as alternative ways for students to gain meaningful experiences abroad.

“We’re not trying to undercut semesters abroad or years abroad; we are, however, recognizing the reality that they’re not growing,” said Ezekiel J. Emanuel, the university’s vice provost for global initiatives, who speculates this is the case because students today have so many competing opportunities on campus. Semesterlong study abroad at Penn has been fairly flat, with the undergraduate participation rate hovering between 23 and 25 percent, while the total number of undergraduates studying abroad for a full year has decreased from 83 in 2005-6 to just 11 in 2011-12.

Summer and short-term study abroad has been growing, however, and the university is making a push to increase non-credit-bearing international internships and volunteer opportunities.

“If you want more students to go somewhere, you actually have to augment [traditional study abroad],” Emanuel said. “That’s the numbers game. But then there’s a philosophical difference, and here’s what I would say about that. If you go overseas for a summer internship you’re spending 10 weeks actually living with people in that other country. You’re living in a village; you’re working at an organization. You are in many ways much more involved in the country and the culture than if you take a semester at a [foreign] university.”

“Second, if you commit yourself to live overseas after you graduate for a couple years that’s a huge commitment to immersion in another culture.”

The university’s strategic plan for international initiatives calls for growing the number of stipends available to support international internships and working with the career services office to identify and highlight international job and internship opportunities. A new page on the office of the vice provost for global initiatives website is dedicated to international career and employment resources. The career services office, which has long held an international job fair with a virtual component, has a newly created international careers listserv and has added a “Do you want to work or intern abroad?” link to its central job database, PennLink.

Career services staff have reached out to employers the university already has relationships with to encourage them to post overseas job and internship opportunities, and as a pilot project similarly reached out to a Penn alumni group in Mumbai, India, this year. It has also hosted virtual speed networking sessions with alumni groups in China, India and the United Kingdom.

In addition, the career services office hosts some videos and blog posts featuring alumni working abroad. The idea is to show students many examples of alumni who are pursuing these opportunities, said Kelly Cleary, the senior associate director for career services. She explained that students often feel like they’ll be missing out on opportunities by going abroad for a year or two after graduation, when in fact the story that many alumni tell is that working overseas opened doors.

“From what I’ve discussed with students, there’s a huge nervousness about jobs and about their future,” Emanuel said. “I think people are somewhat conservative; they’re hesitant about doing something that might be perceived as unusual. Either they’re going to get the B.A. and get a job or get the B.A. and go to professional school, and getting off that traditional treadmill, if you will, seems to require a little courage. Part of my message to people is in the globalized world going forward, having an international experience, showing that you can live in another culture, I think that’s going to be highly marketable.”

Data collected from the career services office for the class of 2012 show that 42 American graduates of the College of Arts and Sciences had secured employment abroad. (Notably, this number would not include undergraduates at Wharton or other professional schools.)  It’s too early in the initiative to expect any movement on that number, but Emanuel said the trick will be to “gin up demand” by making international opportunities more visible to students, so they see, for example, they can do investment banking in Hong Kong and Singapore just as they could in New York. “What I want is for more students to consider this option, for it to be easy for people to do and for us to be able to satisfy the demand,” Emanuel said.

Tied to this push is the growth of the university’s International Internship Program. “Part of my motivation for sending students overseas for a summer is to whet their appetite,” said Emanuel – “now, let’s do a whole year or two years.”

The university is funding 70 students this summer for internships at Penn-approved sites abroad. The internships are noncredit, so financial aid doesn’t transfer, but a $3,000-$3,400 stipend is intended to cover travel and living costs (the host organization does not pay a salary). Many of the placements are at nongovernmental organizations, but this year the university has added some companies, such as a Singaporean private equity fund that invests in energy and infrastructure. The internships are concentrated in less traditional destinations in Central and South America, East and Southeast Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa.

“I would say the majority of the internships that we offer are with organizations that are either alumni-run or alumni-owned or there’s an alumnus on the board or an alumnus is an employee,” said Cara Bonnington, manager of the international internship program. Other internship placements are determined by faculty interests. The university’s Center for the Advanced Study of India coordinates internship placements at a variety of NGOs, for example, and students can intern with a faculty-led community health initiative in Guatemala or assist with a Penn anthropology professor’s primate research in Argentina or Ecuador. The application process is competitive: there were about three applications for every spot this year. Some placements require or recommend foreign language proficiency, while others do not.

At the same time, Penn has also conducted an initial review of all its traditional study abroad programs, paring those that were determined to be of lower academic rigor or immersive value. According to the director of education abroad, Barbara Gorka, programs were evaluated according to three main criteria – academic quality and opportunities for cultural and linguistic integration, respectively. Are students living in homestays, for example, or in dorms with other international students? Are there opportunities for students to volunteer in the community or find local language partners? 

Secondary to the review were administrative considerations such as enrollment and the diversity of the program mix offered by Penn in regards to destination and academic discipline. About 30 study abroad programs out of more than 150 were cut in the initial review and the university made significant modifications to many others, such as increasing the requirement for foreign language proficiency in some cases or limiting enrollment in a given program to students with a specific academic background. Penn will be conducting a more substantive review of each of its study abroad programs every four years going forward (a quarter of its programs will be reviewed each year).  

“We’re consciously trying to upgrade what we offer students to make it more appealing,” Emanuel said, at the same time that the university has expanded its scope. “The focus isn’t on the very narrow notion of meaningful classroom experiences; we want a meaningful cultural experience.”

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