A Push to Send Students Abroad

At the Generation Study Abroad summit, a shared goal is to increase -- and diversify -- the pool of American students going overseas.

October 2, 2015

WASHINGTON -- Few if any of the attendees at a summit on increasing study abroad participation would need to be convinced of study abroad’s value, but a key theme of discussions on Thursday was the need to better communicate that value to others. To first-generation college students and to students at community colleges. To students who are military veterans and to students who have disabilities. To parents. To faculty members. To prospective employers.

The drive to increase and diversify the population of students going abroad at institutions of all types is a shared goal at the Institute of International Education’s Generation Study Abroad Summit, which continues through today. More than 350 U.S. colleges have signed on to the Generation Study Abroad initiative, which aims to double the number of Americans studying abroad by the end of the decade.

The vast majority of these colleges (84 percent) have committed to creating or expanding scholarships for groups historically underrepresented in study abroad, including first-generation and racial minority students. Further, 91 percent of the participating universities are expanding their international program offerings: 64 percent have pledged to increase the number of academic programs that include an optional or required study abroad component, 71 percent plan to increase the financial support they provide for faculty-led programs and 77 percent intend to expand short-term programs, including internship and volunteer opportunities abroad.

Multiple sessions at the summit focused on the link between study abroad and employability and the need for students to gain “global” or “intercultural” competencies to compete in the workforce.

“Every single presentation that’s made by the study abroad program office focuses on the realities of the economics in the state,” said Suzanne Droleskey, executive director for public partnership and outreach at Texas A&M University. Droleskey showed a PowerPoint slide that led with the statistic that Texas had $289 billion in exports in 2014, more than any other U.S. state.

The message to Texas residents who might be reluctant to leave their home state is this: “If you want to be born and live and die in the state of Texas you better be globally focused, because business is.”

Yet speakers on Thursday also noted the mixed messages employers send when it comes to study abroad. “I would say intercultural skills are valued but not screened in recruitment,” said Diana Cvitan, the director of global learning and partnerships at Fairleigh Dickinson University and a doctoral student at the University of Bath, in England, where she's researching global competencies and employment.

Martha Johnson, assistant dean for learning abroad at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, discussed the need to help students articulate the skills they gain in study abroad and how they relate to their career goals. For example, she shows students a slide of the top 10 skills most valued by Minnesota employers. Teamwork is one of those skills. “I say, you just traveled with 23 people you never met before for three weeks. Anyone learn anything about teamwork? And then they laugh and start writing furiously.”

But is all study abroad created equal? Jessica Kuntz, who spent a semester abroad as a college student in Russia and subsequently traveled to Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina on federally funded Fulbright and Boren fellowships, respectively, said she thinks the depth of the experience and the destination matter. “Employers are more interested in seeing experience in places like China, in emerging markets, and I believe four of the top five destinations for students are in Western Europe,” said Kuntz, who now works for the auditing and consulting firm Deloitte (indeed, the top four destinations for U.S. students going abroad are the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain and France -- China is number five).

As for depth, Kuntz said the degree to which an experience is immersive matters, too. She said she doesn't use her Bosnian language skills in her career, but she does use the problem-solving skills she honed when she hurt her leg and had to navigate the Bosnian medical system. “We need to beware of keeping the kid gloves on too much with study abroad,” she said. “Sending students out on their own and letting them make mistakes and solve those problems on their own is immensely valuable.”

The Institute of International Education estimates that about 9.4 percent of U.S. undergraduate students, including community college students, study abroad, and the majority do so on short-term programs of eight weeks or fewer. By contrast, Germany sends 37 percent of its students abroad, for an average duration of five months, according to Ulrich Grothus, the deputy secretary general and head of the Berlin office for the German Academic Exchange Service.

The comparison between Germany and the U.S. is imperfect -- of course, Grothus acknowledged, Germany is a much smaller country and, given the nine countries that border it, “the existence of other countries is an everyday experience” in a way it isn't always in the U.S. Further, the European Union's Erasmus program -- and the scholarship support it provides -- has been a big factor in increasing student mobility across the continent.

But Grothus suggested some lessons can be translated to an American context. He said the majority of German students who study abroad are in programs that require or encourage it: “that's very important that there be windows for mobility in the curriculum,” he said. A considerable proportion of the students going abroad are doing so on internships. And the perception that an experience abroad will get German students jobs -- and better jobs, and jobs farther away -- has, Grothus said, been a “very important driver.”

Relatedly, Grothus cited the importance of “clear signals from employers that it really matters.”

“You cannot have a successful career unless you develop the skills to interact with and work productively with people who are different from you. It's absolutely essential,” Ángel Cabrera, the president of George Mason University, said during a keynote speech on Thursday afternoon.

Cabrera suggested that universities like his own need to do a better job of making the case for study abroad. Many deans and department heads “see it as a nice add-on, nice icing on the cake,” he said, “as opposed to seeing it as cake.”


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