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Not-So-Great Expectations

At a conference for international education administrators, sessions focus on whether universities are setting high enough expectations for students when they study abroad. 

February 18, 2015
 

WASHINGTON -- Are American institutions expecting too little of the students they send abroad?

In a time in which the majority of students going abroad are doing so on highly structured, faculty-led, short-term programs -- some as short as one week -- “How are we guiding students to go beyond their comfort zone?” asked Mary Anne Grant, president and CEO of International Student Exchange Programs (ISEP) at a session Tuesday at the Association of International Education Administrators’ annual conference.

Against the backdrop of a campaign to double American study abroad participation numbers, speakers at several sessions at the conference made a call to not sacrifice quality for quantity. In the session titled “Increasing Education Abroad: It’s Not Just About Numbers,” Grant’s copresenter, Elizabeth Brewer, argued that the expectations need to be raised, that American students don’t need a cruise ship with all the amenities to stay afloat.

“We need to get students off the cruise ship, and we have to create the narrative that they are capable of functioning quite well in the canoe or the kayak,” said Brewer, the director of international education at Beloit College, a liberal arts institution in Wisconsin.

Brewer made the argument that the more students "author" their own study abroad experiences, the more they can achieve, and she offered a few concrete suggestions to that effect. Change the application for study abroad, she urged, from a statement of students’ qualifications to focus more on their reasons for going.

On post-study abroad evaluations, Brewer said, don’t ask (only) about satisfaction. “Ask that last,” she said. “The first thing you should be doing is asking: What did you learn and how did you learn it and why did that matter and what are you going to do with it? Where are you going to take it?”

Lastly, Brewer said, make the outcomes visible to students “so you can have honest conversations about what study abroad really is.” One simple way to begin to do this, she said, is to ask students for permission to keep their evaluations on file.

In a different conference session specifically on the short-term study abroad model, Janis Perkins, the founder of Expanding Horizons for Education Abroad, described perceptions of American study abroad students on the part of host universities overseas. She said that American students are perceived as being relatively unfocused in their goals and academic objectives, and as not being self-reliant, requiring a lot in the way of logistical services.

"They believe programs will be more successful if U.S. students are given what they want," Perkins said, referencing the example of "no Friday classes." She added that overseas partners tend to err on the side of respecting American students' cultural norms rather than informing them of ways they're being offensive to local residents -- for example, by not asking Americans to cover their tattoos in Japan, where those are frowned upon. 

Further, there is a perception among overseas partners, Perkins said, that “we have redefined 'study abroad' to increase participation numbers" -- one person went so far as to tell her in no uncertain terms that custom-designed, short-term programs do not constitute study abroad.

Many advocates of short-term programs argue that they provide a path for students who wouldn’t or couldn’t go otherwise, and that they’re an important tool to have in order to expand the diversity of students who study abroad. Some students have work or family commitments and wouldn't be able to fly away for a semester. Others are the first in their families to go to college and have never been on a plane, and for them a two-week trip outside of the U.S. is a daunting enough challenge as it is. 

Also, when done well, short-term faculty-led programs are a way to make course content come alive for students – as in the case of an Irish literature course set in Dublin, for example. 

“I don’t think the issue is really whether it’s short-term, long-term or whatever, it’s what are we telling our students are the expectations about study abroad,” Grant, of ISEP, said during the question-and-answer period of the second session. “We’re handing them everything, we’re [telling them that we're] going to do everything for you. It’s going to be easy. What happened to the notion of 'it’s going to be hard, it’s going to be different, you’re really going to learn something, you’re going to have to work at this'?"

Sara Dumont, the director of study abroad at American University, replied that the issue of length plays right into this -- that the 10-day trip with classmates and a faculty member is the easy way to go and that’s the reason why students choose it over a semester. “I've had semester programs that I've run for many years killed by other units of my institution offering these short faculty-led trips. Obviously, it’s completely nondisruptive; you go during a break, you’re going with people you know and you have a trip -- and you get credit for it," she said.

“I do believe that there are very good short-term study abroad programs, and I think there is a place for short-term programs in the spectrum of offerings for our students," said Perkins. "But what we’re seeing is the cannibalization of semester- and academic-year programs by these short-term programs."

The latest numbers from the Institute of International Education show that 60.3 percent of all Americans studying abroad do so on short-term programs, which are defined as eight weeks or shorter. Another 36.5 percent go for a semester or quarter, while just 3.2 percent study abroad for a full academic or calendar year. 

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