Nicholas Kristof is at it again. This time , he is encouraging all students to take a gap-year or advantage of study abroad opportunities. This in and of itself isn’t tremendously controversial; international experiences (particularly in aid of learning a foreign language) can be a valuable learning experience. What I take particular issue with is how “easy” he makes it out to be:
There’s a misconception that gap years or study-abroad opportunities are feasible only for the affluent. There are lots of free options (and some paid ones) at idealist.org, which lists volunteering opportunities all over the world. It’s also often possible to make money teaching English on the side.
This assumes, of course, that there aren’t any opportunity costs associated with study abroad or international experience trips. It assumes that college students are a monolith of 18-23 year-olds, and not the non-traditional student that makes up the majority of post-secondary students today. For a single parent, an eldest sibling helping to care of family, a first-generation college student working multiple jobs, a student who has been to multiple campuses and institutions…These are the realities of higher education today, and taking a semester, a summer, or a whole year off to “find yourself” might be more affordable than ever, but the opportunity costs don’t just disappear.
I’ve written about the issue of excuses versus reasons , and what Kristoff is saying comes close to making student’s (and the student’s family’s) finances into an excuse rather than a legitimate reason for not studying abroad. In other words, the student is falling short of some standard that they need to justify by offering an excise. This also means that it can and should be reasonable expected of all students, or that money isn’t a good enough reason not to partake in these kinds of activities.
It also assumes that the best way to “learn about life” and to gain maturity is to travel to a foreign country. Many of my students know about poverty, hard work, inequities, code-switching, and other realities of life without having to leave their home county, let alone country. This doesn’t mean I don’t think that an international experience and learning about the world isn’t meaningful or valuable, but it’s another item on a long list of “extras” students need to have now upon graduation in order to “compete”: internships, international experience, volunteering, clubs, teams…On top of getting good grades (which apparently don’t matter anyway  to employers) and being able to show off all of the “soft skills” they’ve acquired.
It’s increasingly frustrating as an educator to watch so many of my students struggle to meet the longer and longer list of requirements needed to “stand out” on top of the things they need to do simply to make ends meet and survive college while meeting the demands and requirements of their families, communities, and other obligations. Students are starving , but rather than eat, we need to ensure they have an international experience.
But, what is our obligation in higher education? How much of our increasingly scarce resources, particularly in the public system, should we devote to helping our students do “more”? I want my students to have every opportunity to succeed, but at what cost? What happens when academics takes a back seat to…everything else? Are we really serving the best interest of our students and their educations or the demands of an unforgiving labor market?
I don’t have any answers to these questions. I struggled with many of the same questions 20 years ago. I never studied abroad, in large part because I had to take my summers to work and make money. I looked into teaching English and being an au-pair. But, if I took any time off just to travel and work, I would have had to start paying back my loans, which I couldn’t afford. These were legitimate reasons not to go overseas while I was a student. Did I envy my friends who could and did travel? Yes. Do I still?
Not really. I don’t feel any less educated than they do. My experiences were just different. I can also recognize however that I have a certain amount of other cultural capital that can compensate for my lack of "international" experience.
Students who can’t afford an unpaid internship or a study-abroad opportunity shouldn’t be seen as having some personal failings , but neither should institutions of higher education be the sole provider of or facilitator for these opportunities, to bridge the gap. Then again, if universities don’t provide these opportunities, private companies will (and already are), and they typically price out the very students my institution serves.
We need to start looking at who or what are placing these demands on all of us to begin with.