Study abroad

Colleges perceive progress in internationalization, but data show less of it

Smart Title: 

While most colleges perceive they've made significant advances in internationalization, actual measurable progress has been slower, a new survey finds.

How a business school requires all of its undergraduates to study abroad

Smart Title: 

Four years ago, a business school began requiring its undergraduates to study abroad. How has the policy worked out?

Report shows study abroad, foreign enrollment rising

Smart Title: 

Study abroad and foreign enrollment rebounded from the impacts of the economic recession and participation in both is higher than ever.

Engaging Globally

Smart Title: 

Now in its fifth year, DukeEngage allows hundreds of students to spend a summer of service at home or abroad, at no cost to them.

Should Our Students Study Chinese?

As major participants and drivers in the process of globalization, Americans have a remarkable ambivalence about the rest of the world. We want to be engaged, loved, respected -- and obeyed. We seek collaboration, but on our terms. We embrace the international difference that most closely resembles ourselves: English speaking, Western European, or Latin American. We speak glowingly of international travel and study abroad, but most of us seek out places that approximate our home environment.  

Our colleges and universities encourage study abroad, develop internationalization initiatives, and welcome international students, but American students and faculty flee from the serious study of languages other than English. We teach the literature of our international trading partners in translation because so few of our students can read anything of substance in someone else’s language. And, as we usually do in American academic circles, we worry about all this a lot.

The Institute for International Education publishes statistics and reports through its Open Doors series that give us a picture of how we engage our global colleagues. The good news is that more and more students study and travel abroad than ever before, most students understand that their future requires an engagement with the greater world outside our borders, and just about every college and university has some kind of international commitment in its curriculum.  

The bad news is that few students take foreign languages and few institutions require them to do so.  Only literature, history, and other area-studies specialists show any interest in the deep understanding made possible through immersion in language, and the numbers of students in these majors does not appear to be rising. Although everyone recognizes that our national security and prosperity demand experts with full proficiency and cultural literacy in a wide range of thinly taught languages, we find neither the national funding nor the student interest in developing these skills.  

Often, our leaders in business and industry tell us how important international expertise has become, but they frequently hire well educated native speakers to lead their overseas operations, and offer little or no premium to American managers who have particular language skills. Our students, observing the career paths of highly successful people, learn quickly that while the business world values international travel and living experience, it sees only modest benefit from in-depth understanding of a specific language or culture.  

Indeed, specialists in language and culture often fear relegation to mid-level corporate niches while their generalist colleagues move around the company in different jobs in different places, advancing quickly up the corporate ladder. Even our State Department, charged with the obligation of keeping the country tuned to our global relationships, rotates Foreign Service officers from post to post, producing globally aware individuals with great breadth and minimal cultural and linguistic depth.

NAFSA, an organization of international student and study abroad advisers, published a Report of the Strategic Task Force on Education Abroad. As I read it, I am not sure what to make of it. It calls for us to increase study abroad opportunities and asserts that language proficiency matters, but it recognizes that most students want to go where people speak English or where the U.S. already has significant cultural and historical familiarity (Europe and Latin America).

It calls for more engagement but notes that most students want to participate in semester programs rather than yearlong programs.  It celebrates a dramatic increase in the number of students seeking study abroad opportunities but finds the numbers too small to meet the need.

Here, as in other reports of similar nature on different topics, we have a worthy objective presented by people who have the right idea and a clear sense of what we should do. At the same time, we have universities and colleges that cannot drive their students to study a language to any degree of proficiency, who cannot enforce any form of required international curriculum, and who squirm uncomfortably as they argue that a semester of study abroad will produce globally competitive leaders.

Perhaps our students and their employers are telling us something we do not want to hear. Maybe language and culture are much less important for global success than the subject competence that adds value to a business or a product. Maybe they know that only those who make language and culture their major area of study can approximate the abilities and skills of an ordinary educated native speaker.

Maybe they recognize that the years of study needed to acquire foreign language fluency in America will yield much less future income than similar effort invested in accounting, finance, physics, computer science or legal studies.

It is not what we want to hear, we internationalists, we specialists in language and area studies, we culture vultures who live and breathe the dramatic variety of the world’s people.  It is not what we want to hear, but when our students’ behavior overwhelmingly fails to match our beliefs, we probably should listen more carefully.

John V. Lombardi
Author's email:

Quantity or Quality in Study Abroad?

More than ever before, American college students are studying abroad. They are going as part of classes or signing up for short term summer or semester-long programs. According to the Institute of International Education, 205,983 students studied abroad during the 2004-5 academic year, representing an increase of 144 percent over the past decade.

All of this has the potential to be good. Good for students, for American interests abroad, and for the world as a whole. International education can enhance our global competitiveness. Students who have traveled and studied overseas have greater capacity to learn languages and cultures. They are more confident and committed to their educational pursuits. They have more poise, self-esteem, autonomy, self-confidence, flexibility, maturity, self-reliance and improved social skills. Many of the capacities needed to compete in today’s “flat” world are acquired through international travel and immersion in other cultures.

As this work progresses, we would do well to remember that the desirable outcomes associated with studying abroad are neither automatic nor guaranteed under current conditions, nor can we measure success only by the number of students sent abroad. We need to be intentional and purposeful and might start by examining the difference between “high road” and “low road” models for international education.

Under low road models, universities and programs send college students into the world, with little preparation, for culturally thin experiences. Students make minimal effort to learn local languages or customs, travel in large groups, and are taught in American-only classrooms. They live and go to bars with other Americans, often drinking too much and getting into trouble. They see local sights through the windows of traveling buses. Far from experiencing another culture deeply and on its own terms, these students (at best) simply get the American college experience in a different time zone. It is worth noting as well that many of the study abroad destinations known as “fun” don’t even require language study and offer relatively minimal challenges to students’ sense of place and culture. These also happen to be the places with the highest percentage of students.

High road study abroad programs are developed to ensure deep cultural and language immersion. Students are oriented to understand and respect local customs and encouraged to take responsibility for projecting a positive image of Americans. High-road providers ensure that students become part of the culture by staying with local families and giving back to local communities. Examples include: the School for International Training, the School For Field Studies and the International Honors Program. Each of these organizations is working to create programs where students attend classes and participate in activities with local students and are taught by local staff who are paid fair wages and offer an inside view of the culture. Students learn that they return to the U.S. with an obligation to stay active, help others learn from their experiences, and push for better policies with regards to the developing world. These students become young intercultural emissaries, global citizens able to adapt and contribute to a complex world.

High road programs tend to be built with four principles in mind:

  • Commitment to scale and access. Currently, less than 8 percent of American college students study abroad, despite polling data that suggest most have an interest in doing so. Just as important, of that small percentage, less than 9 percent are black or Hispanic, even though these students constitute 25 percent of all college students. Stated differently, about 50 percent of the students who study abroad come from just 100 universities and colleges. We need to do better.
  • Emphasis on exposing students to less-traveled, less-understood destinations. Two-thirds of students who study abroad go to Europe. Only 15 percent go to Latin America, 7 percent to Asia, 3 percent to Africa, .5 percent to the Middle East. As geopolitical and economic power shifts, study abroad needs to keep up by including emerging regions of importance. Of course students should still study in Europe, but they should go on programs where they learn languages, are deeply immersed in cultures, and challenged by important themes in contemporary European society.
  • Plans for student “reentry” and opportunities for lifelong engagement. Students return from abroad filled with energy and excitement, often transformed by their experiences, but struggle to find opportunities and outlets for channeling their newfound energies. We need to harness and direct this energy towards lifelong learning, growth, and engagement in communities back home. There has been a tremendous amount of chatter within the higher education around civic education and engaging undergraduates. Harnessed correctly, study abroad may be as close to a solution as we will find.
  • Commitment to reciprocity. In this context, reciprocity might be defined as operating our programs in ways that strengthen the partners (e.g., community groups, individuals, and communities) we depend upon for the vitality of our programs. International education can either be perceived as one more thing the U.S. does at the expense of the rest of the world, or something that has economic and social benefits for host countries and communities. High road providers work in partnership with host communities. They bring needed revenues, networks, and other resources to these communities, while also maintaining a small and respectful footprint.

Some providers do this by paying attention to how they run their operations. They purposefully use local companies, keep the footprint small, and compensate local staff with good wages, benefits and professional development opportunities. Other providers are using community-based research and service-learning projects to connect students to local development efforts. The International Partnership for Service-Learning and Leadership is a good example.

But reciprocity can and should mean much more. For example, at the School for International Training, where I work, we recently signed an agreement with the Royal University of Bhutan (RUB). RUB is hosting students for a month on its campus. In return, SIT is using our network with 250 colleges and university to serve as a portal for RUB into American higher education. We arranged a tour for RUB administrators to visit their counterparts at a range of public and private universities. We are placing select RUB graduates into PhD programs. To make this happen (and bring things full circle) we are offering the universities who take RUB students financial aid for their students to come on our programs. Additionally, we are arranging for American faculty to spend time in Bhutan. In this form, reciprocity connects all the partners in loops that benefit American universities, study abroad providers, and community partners with clear intentionality and purpose.

All of this raises interesting questions that have yet to be fully explored:

  • Would it be OK if study abroad programs fall in short term numbers, but go up in quality? What would happen if the key indicator of success shifted from the number of participants to the magnitude of student learning outcomes?
  • How might universities create market demand for high road programs? Consistent with changes to accreditation, what would happen if universities required study abroad providers to document how programs meet particular learning outcomes and provided measurement of successes and failures?
  • How can we ensure greater access? This is an extremely important issue partly driven by price. We need to find creative methods to keep programs affordable. Part of it is also about moving study abroad beyond the liberal arts into the professions. We need programs for students who are studying nursing, hospitality, business, engineering and a range of other professions that reach beyond the liberal arts campuses.

Higher education is under growing pressure from politicians, parents and even our own accrediting agencies to better demonstrate value added for students, communities and the nation. Study abroad is a good example of how we can take something we are already doing and magnify the impact by being more purposeful and intentional with our desired outcomes and strategies for achieving them. In doing so, we can better position higher education to meet challenges around global competitiveness and public diplomacy, while also enhancing our humanitarian commitment to the world.

Adam Weinberg
Author's email:

Adam Weinberg is the executive vice president of World Learning, where he also serves as the provost for the School for International Training.

An American College President in Egypt -- With 32 Students

“One, two, three, four . . . ,” I counted, speaking each number aloud, to myself, one through thirty-two, as the Carleton College students with me in Egypt this winter term hiked down the hill that divides the Valley of the Kings from the 15th-century BC Temple of Hatshepsut. “We’re all here,” I said, again aloud, again to myself, when I reached number thirty-two. “Thank heavens.”

Anyone who has led an off-campus study program, especially any such program that travels, moves about from city to city, country to country, will recognize and share the relief I felt when I reached number thirty-two. When we lead such programs, we are professors, of course, but we’re also advisors and deans and much more. We’re on, on duty, all the time. We’re responsible not just for our students’ learning, but also for their safety and well-being.

Two days later, we were back in Cairo, where we’d begun this term of study and where we’d lived for ten days before taking off for Alexandria, then Luxor and Karnak. This day’s beginning found us shivering, as cold as I can remember being, anywhere, including either Northfield, Minnesota, where Carleton is located, or Hanover, New Hampshire, where I was for many years a professor. We were in an unheated classroom on Zamalek, the northern end of Gezira Island, with the Nile flowing south to Lower Egypt on either side of us. The cold inside in Cairo is the more daunting because it’s unexpected. Hours later, we, all of us, were leaning against an Old Kingdom temple, blissfully warmed by the afternoon sun, which soon set behind the pyramid of Khafre. The students, at once exhausted by our non-stop classes and reading and lectures and discussions and yet openly in love with Egypt, produced shadows against the ancient stone with their hands and arms, spelling words in English and Arabic and more. Last winter, when I first introduced this program in Egypt to potentially interested students, I told them that world cities come in two categories: Cairo and every other city. They begin, I think, to credit my claim as more than hyperbole.

We’ve read, these weeks past, almost nothing but primary texts: Pyramid Texts and Coffin Texts and narratives from ancient Egypt; a Hellenistic novel, Apuleius’ The Golden Ass in the sparkling, witty, altogether wonderful new translation by Joel Relihan; and material from various periods in the development of various Islams. We’ve visited the obligatory museums, inside and open air, and studied Islamic mosques, but we’ve also walked the streets of Cairo and Alexandria, through neighborhoods seldom visited and we’ve gone to a small, one-room school for young girls in a tiny village in Upper Egypt. Those students who had begun Arabic at Carleton were able to continue some of what they had learned in conversations across Egypt, and all of us learned some Arabic, street or survival Arabic, as our program began. Our students will conclude their time in Egypt by introducing the ancient Near East and the modern Middle East to a group whom I will then lead on a Nile Cruise.

I’ve led Nile Cruises, often before. I’ve led off-campus study programs, several times before. But both courses and cruises in previous decades I led as a full-time professor. Now, I’m a full-time college president, and I'm doing all the teaching, although two other professors are here with the group too. Teaching is a bit like riding a bicycle: One hops aboard after years of absence and discovers, after a rocky moment or two, that this is challenging but a lot of fun and quite doable. The most difficult part is identifying appropriate analogies. Teaching is, for me, centrally about shaping analogies, and I'm much more removed from students' experiences today than I was twenty years ago.

As president, I'm in daily e-mail contact with the college, and I call my office most days. No major decisions are we making without some advice from me, but the fact is I can manage an absence like this because of the uncommonly talented and committed senior staff we have at Carleton.

To devote many weeks away from campus teaching as I’ve done these past days is great fun and a terrific learning experience for me, but it is not easy. Indeed, in the months leading up to this program, as I worked evenings and weekends, non-stop, to re-learn the languages and histories and religions with which I was once easily comfortable, more than once I thought a college president’s leading such a program was something between odd and deranged. Good heavens, what was I thinking?

What was I thinking? Why devote weeks in Egypt to teaching and learning with thirty-two undergraduates? Because liberal arts colleges, like Carleton, are committed to teaching and it had been some time since I’d exercised this commitment, which all of us at such colleges dearly love even as we recognize the ceaseless demands teaching brings – one can always, always shape a finer class. Because programs around the globe, programs which can and do transform lives, are really important. And because our learning more about the Middle East in particular -- learning Arabic and something about the varieties of Islam and the Ottomans and the architecture of the Mosques of Ibn Tulun and Sultan Hassan and much, much more -- is important, really important. These programs can be transformative. This one was for all of us, for those who hiked down the hill above Hatshepsut’s temple and for the one counting them from below.

Rob Oden
Author's email:

Rob Oden has served as president of Carleton College since 2002, following seven years as president of Kenyon
College. His Ph.D. is in Near Eastern languages and he was for many years a professor of religion at Dartmouth College.

Expanding Student Choices in Study Abroad

This summer tens of thousands of American college students are studying in overseas programs around the world. More than 200,000 U.S. students now study abroad each year, and a proposed federal initiative would raise that number to one million within the next decade.

The recent setback in efforts to secure U.S. Senate passage of the Simon Study Abroad Foundation Act offers an apt occasion to reflect on several challenges that face the field. Study abroad has grown dramatically in the past few decades. This growth has been led by a dedicated corps of international education professionals who are committed to high-quality academic experiences abroad that strengthen and enrich student learning. They have persevered through myriad internal and external impediments to develop programs and processes intended to serve students at their institutions. Despite these best efforts, however, most observers within and outside the field acknowledge that study abroad practices suffer from growing pains that are not uncommon to new educational endeavors.

It is a logical reflection of these pressures of popularity and growth that the U.S. study abroad profession has faced a series of investigations, legal actions, and negative press reports over the last two years. As more students participate in study abroad programs, greater scrutiny of those operations is inevitable. Allegations of kick-backs, coercive policies, and other questionable practices have grabbed headlines and compelled many colleges to re-examine their international operations.

Professional associations such as NAFSA: Association of International Educators and the Forum on Education Abroad have moved quickly in recent months to issue reports and guidelines that respond to questions of integrity and ethics. Their calls for greater transparency, accountability, and institutional oversight are all needed reforms that will improve the field.

Yet, from more than twenty years of working in the field of international education, it seems to me that two underlying forces generate many of the perceived abuses. (1) Many U.S. universities yield to the temptation that study abroad programs can be self-sustaining and even profitable cost centers that generate surplus revenues -- in some cases producing substantial net income. (2) This expectation, in turn, drives many institutions to operate study abroad as a restrictive monopoly that denies students both academic and economic choice.

Numerous instances of such practices have surfaced in recent major news stories. At the core of these cases is the control of the transfer of credits earned at universities abroad. So long as U.S. institutions can effectively deny students credit for the same or comparable academic work completed overseas, they can coerce students to enroll in study abroad programs that they themselves sponsor or approve -- even if the same academic program is available through other channels, often at lower cost or with a more appealing array of auxiliary services.

Universities couch their defense of these practices in a variety of academic and utilitarian rationalizations. As reported in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last September, one provost claimed that "the integrity of the overall effort would be compromised if we let students start shopping for the best deal." In an April 2006 Wall Street Journal article, another university put it this way: "Our rationale is if you are going to earn [home school] credit toward your [home school] degree, you should pay [home school] tuition."

But does this, in effect, mean that universities are selling their credits? Students take courses at host institutions in foreign countries. They earn transcripts from those host colleges for their coursework abroad. U.S. institutions then require those students to “buy” those credits for transfer back to the home university. Acceptance of credit is determined by the “approved sponsor” of the program, not by the academic integrity of the foreign institution itself.

Although there are some legitimate concerns about the academic autonomy of universities to control the imprint of courses that appear on their sanctioned transcripts, the primary driving force behind these restrictive policies appears to be economic. Colleges fear the perceived loss of tuition, fees, and other revenues if students pursue alternative methods in obtaining part of their education abroad. In forcing this protectionist approach, universities reduce the study abroad experience to a mere commodity that only holds value if it is purchased from the home institution’s company store.

This practice raises a fundamental question in an era of rapidly-increasing worldwide student mobility. Should U.S. universities control their students’ access to the global marketplace of education? Is this practice different than coercing students to buy their textbooks at the campus bookstore, when they could get those same products from at half the price?

Even more than the affected students, foreign universities should hold primary standing as the aggrieved parties in such cases. Their academic reputations are tarnished when U.S. institutions apply such seemingly arbitrary rules in accepting the intellectual product of their faculty and curriculum.

The Institute of International Education (IIE) recently issued a critique of the proposed Simon Act legislation before Congress, which would increase U.S. study abroad participation five-fold. IIE argued against the current plan to allocate 75 percent of federal funding to institutions, urging instead that monies go directly to individual students. This approach would empower students as the consumers of study abroad programs, rather than the institutions that provide them. In turn, they could seek out programs that in fact “offered them the best deal,” rather than being herded into a home institution’s restricted array of choices.

The recent NAFSA task force obliquely acknowledged this underlying issue on the penultimate page of its January 2008 report. “Arrangements with outside providers should never have the effect of limiting students’ other options for study abroad where these other options meet institutional standards for health, safety, and program quality.” This footnote to the report’s fourteen criteria for institutional management of study abroad deserves greater attention, because it strikes at the heart of the problem.

Why, after all, do we want students to study abroad? If we profess that it is for their and society’s benefit, can we in good conscience claim that the storefronts where students access these opportunities are more important than the education they actually receive?

The study abroad field, however, is divided on this issue. A 2007 survey by the Forum on Education Abroad found that 36 percent of universities never accept credit from programs that are not on their “approved” list, regardless of academic quality, health, and safety standards. The Forum devoted four sessions of its annual conference in Boston this past April to the ethics of such practices. This summer’s NAFSA conference in Washington, DC, generated further discussion about these challenges. The study abroad ethicist William Hoffa has just launched another survey on transfer credit questions. Clearly, these are problems that the field recognizes but is not sure how to remedy.

University registrars are often regarded as guardians of fair and equitable treatment in the recognition of credits. Their voices could have a significant role in this debate, and they are paying careful attention to the conversation. Several sessions at their recent national conference were devoted to this topic.

Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), expressed strong concerns on this issue to The New York Times last August: "What is objectionable is, if the student decides at his or her own risk to go overseas, the outright refusal to take credit from a legitimate foreign institution."

Many study abroad professionals have argued that restrictive practices are justified, so long as the process and consequences are transparent. Existing policy guidelines on transfer credit by the American Council on Education and others give implicit support to this approach. But does transparency of an unfair practice make such a practice legitimate?

We all vigorously support the continued and strengthened commitment of our government and our universities to provide accessible and affordable study abroad opportunities for our students. Their education, and our national capacity for leadership and success in the 21st century, will suffer if these tools of soft diplomacy are not expanded.

We see different consequences, however, from actions that deny a fair and open marketplace to students in the study abroad field. It is doubtful that some current U.S. practices will ultimately stand the test of time. “Approved” programs will likely go the way of “preferred” lenders: There are valid reasons to have them, but institutions cannot force students to use them. Universities will need to adapt models that protect their financial interests while adding value to a student’s overseas experience, and they are certainly capable of managing this challenge. Study abroad will unquestionably survive as a prosperous enterprise in the exploding sector of global higher education, and we can learn from our colleagues in other countries about their practices in credit acceptance and quality assurance.

Two simple reforms could dramatically change the U.S. study abroad landscape:

1) Universities should fund study abroad operations in the same way that they fund history and physics departments. If study abroad produces significant gains in learning outcomes or academic achievement, it should be supported commensurate with other segments of our academic mission. Economic pressures to be self-supporting or to generate profits should not be greater on study abroad programs than they are on other academic units.

2) Universities, and their study abroad offices, should in turn accept the valid transcripts of coursework completed from legitimate overseas programs, regardless of program sponsorship. This would level the playing field for all serious study abroad providers, contribute to our national capacity to send more students overseas, and encourage healthy competition in both program quality and cost-containment.

The irony of these debates, of course, is that U.S. international educators encourage their students to understand and even champion globalization, but often deny its realities in their own sphere. Now is a good time to shed our protectionist policies and embrace a truly global academic market.

Richard C. Sutton
Author's email:

Richard C. Sutton is assistant vice chancellor for international programs at the University System of Georgia Board of Regents.

Who Benefits?

A student who e-mailed me about pursuing grants to work independently in Cambodia ended nearly every sentence with an exclamation point. When I met her, she told me that she had traveled to the country with her family a few years earlier, but allowed that she could not recall much about what she had seen. Still, she believed that winning a fellowship would be a great opportunity! Another student’s communiqué declared that she wanted to teach but also demanded to know, "Can I make a living wage there?" When I replied that no wage was more likely, I never heard from her again. A colleague, at mid-life and restless, told me that she wanted to do "something like you do … go and work somewhere exotic."

I understood their desires and motivations. Before I had actually worked in Cambodia, I had experienced all these feelings. And I believe in the incomparable benefits of international experience and education. However, I’ve also found myself growing protective both of a country that I know needs more than just to be someone’s springboard (including my own) and of the students and professionals who may not have fully considered the impact of their plans on themselves and Cambodians.

I also think this issue has wider reverberations, beyond Cambodia. In an American economy so feeble, and with jobs so scarce, many students (and professionals) may feel that gaining grants and applying to national service programs, for work both domestic and abroad, represent their best chances to acquire experience and subsequent employment — even when they may not be well-matched to, or well-served by, the grants and service programs they seek. Thus, I often wonder how educators and students can best balance their own desires and ambitions with those of the countries and populations that they seek to explore.

In 2004, funded by Smith College, where I work, I made the first of four January-long trips to Cambodia to provide staff and faculty development workshops at the Royal University of Phnom Penh and Social Services of Cambodia. In 2009, I was the first American awarded a Fulbright Senior Specialist grant to the country’s National Institute of Education (NIE) in Phnom Penh, where I conducted workshops in pedagogy and language skills for graduate students: future secondary school teachers who will labor in Cambodia’s provinces, the "remote areas," as my NIE students termed their professional destinations.

Although these students were engaged and resourceful participants in my workshops and genuinely enthusiastic about teaching, they were also realistic about their futures. Once assigned to their provincial secondary schools, they will earn about $50 per month (less than Cambodia’s per capita GDP of $723) and teach in classrooms with up to 60 students. Most of their own students will attend irregularly, as they will be needed at home for harvests, household help and childcare. These educators will likely teach all their lives in these schools where adequate books, supplies and ongoing training will be only dreams.

As for my dreams, my own work in Cambodia fulfilled a long-held one, and like many inchoate desires, it began in fantasies not entirely reasonable: I had never been to Cambodia, I spoke no Khmer, and I didn’t know a single person in Cambodian higher education. However, I had tutored Cambodian refugees in Western Massachusetts and read widely and voraciously about the country and its people. For reasons I don’t entirely understand — nor need to — I felt compelled to find a way to work in the country. So I developed contacts, wrote letters, sent my CV, and applied for funding. By the time I made my first trip to Phnom Penh, more than 20 years into a career as a college educator, I was in possession of a skill set that this post-conflict nation could use.

My main contact at the Royal University — and in Cambodia — was Sister Luise Ahrens, Ph.D., a wry, sanguine and seemingly indefatigable Maryknoll nun and educator who has lived in Cambodia since 1991; she helped develop and now oversees the curriculum at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. She also seeks to increase the professional capacities of the Cambodian faculty, few of whom, when I first began working in Cambodia, had completed a graduate education. (In fact, fewer than half of Cambodians aged 15 to 24 have even completed primary school, making the need for motivated and motivating teachers — and for a stronger educational system in general — particularly acute.)

My workshops and individual consultations on teaching and learning issues with Royal University instructors, social service workers, and NIE graduate students were in service of Sister Luise’s and her Cambodian and expatriate colleagues’ goals. And, as Sister Luise believes ardently, "the legacy of the tragic history here makes teaching both a challenge and a joy." Thus, only an experienced educator — one knowledgeable about and flexible in a myriad of educational settings and situations — could have done the work. (Although, I hasten to add, that this educator certainly didn’t have to have been me.)

At the same time, I will never forget the almost giddy excitement I felt when I first arrived in Phnom Penh, a city I had researched and imagined so vividly that it seemed almost familiar to me: its languid, electric air; the packed streets and shop-houses; market stalls redolent of ripe fish and fruit; a silver sunbeam knifing the Mekong. Familiar, but no place like home. This achievement of willed dislocation opened me in crucial ways to experience, insight and learning: precisely the goals we educators have for ourselves in our teaching endeavors and for all our students’ educations. At its best, this kind of purposeful, planful travel encourages a comparative, evaluative and critical habit of mind that I want to maintain for myself and engender and encourage in my students.

So, after my first project in Phnom Penh, and back at Smith, I became an informal "Cambodia person" for students (and some professionals) thinking of pursuing work or study projects there. Smith has no formal exchange program with institutions in Cambodia, but I am happy to talk to interested people about my experiences and share my contacts when I can. Every time I respond to a student’s request for assistance, though, I am mindful of the emphatic warning I received from Sister Luise:

"You can’t send kids because they cannot do the work independently, and it’s a lot of work to mind them."

She made it clear to me that the onus would have to be on the home institution or the students themselves. Thus, my own experience working in Cambodia as well as my conversations with Sister Luise and other colleagues, both in Cambodia and at Smith, led to my writing a caveat in one of my project reports that was posted on Smith’s fellowships Web page.

…[S]tudents planning projects in Cambodia need to be aware of the country’s volatile history and present circumstances. Cambodia remains a politically unstable — often lawless — country. Illegal drugs are widely available, and violence — including political violence — is common. Medical facilities are well below American standards, tropical diseases are prevalent, and serious traffic accidents in Phnom Penh are endemic. Thus, American students in Cambodia need to be particularly mature and responsible and/or supervised closely by adult staff from their home colleges.

Sister Luise’s concern was shared by another American expat I met during my first trip to Cambodia. In 2004, Lea Dooley, an HIV/AIDS program adviser, took to her blog to ruminate about the state of play in Cambodian politics. In July of that year, Cambodia’s national elections had taken place, "complete," as Lea wrote, "with election observers from around the world [including] a bunch of giggling interns who talked about Cambodia as if they’d been here for two years and not two days." Lea was in her early 30s then, and a veteran of international aid work. She noted with dry irony that the lead-up to the election was "tense." She then proceeded with insight and detail to document the deep wells of poverty, corruption, impunity, intimidation and fear that most Cambodians endure. "You can’t tell WHAT is going on out here unless you actually ARE here," Lea noted.

Whether we met over dinner in Phnom Penh or, later, exchanged thoughts in email conversations, I was (and am) always intrigued by Lea’s well-earned perspectives and observations, expressed in ways that are by turns warm, witty, generous, and occasionally caustic. Even after leaving CARE and Cambodia to work in Washington, she offered to talk with any of my students interested in careers in international public health.

I’ve been frank in my e-mail conversations with Sister Luise and Lea about the conundrum I sometimes feel when students whom I know are not ready to work at the Royal University or in aid agencies ask me for advice in developing individual projects in Cambodia.

On the subject, Sister Luise is direct. She wants students to bring something to the enterprise. She speaks of the partnership program that Maryknoll has with the University of Notre Dame, which sends students for service learning, but "the program there makes the students learn ESL and do it for a semester with immigrants in South Bend before they come, so that they are not totally new to teaching before they get into [teaching in Cambodia]." In addition to their teaching, while in Cambodia, the Notre Dame students volunteer in supervised settings including hospices and schools for disabled children. This work and its prerequisite training, Sister Luise believes, "is often quite good for both them and the clients."

Still, she told me, "Our real need is for people with Ph.D.'s to come here and teach in the various master's programs. They can always use the Royal University as a base and do their own research — some areas are wide open for research right now. Of course, we cannot pay them, so if they are on paid sabbaticals, this would be the best way to go — or if they had a grant."

And recently, Lea wrote to me about the cachet that failed states often have for people — for better and worse. She described "all the right earmarks — a funky language, you need a passport, a visa, AND shots; there is the thrill of recent disaster and lawlessness that goes well with sex and drugs and death." She continued, "Perhaps I’m getting older so my perspective is changing….though truthfully, it seemed as though we [her fellow relief workers] were a bit more connected to doing the work for an ethical compulsion and less for a combo spa/ethical internship."

I take these perspectives seriously. All three of us know of some wonderful opportunities in Cambodia for emerging young scholars (such as the Luce and Fulbright programs) as well as strong organizations (various college programs and the Peace Corps among them) who welcome young volunteers, provide support and training, and offer valuable placements where students can be of real service, gain useful experience, and learn in an unparalleled education setting: another world. Several of my students have found success with these opportunities, thus fulfilling their own goals and gaining crucial credentials that will certainly prepare them for more independent work and study.

Certainly, Cambodia needs development assistance greatly, and also, certainly, the country can serve, like so many other developing nations, as little more than an alien backdrop for first world others’ ambitions, whimsies, and caprice. Yet every mature, seasoned and committed professional working in challenging lands had, as some part of his or her motivation to go, that yearning for the world elsewhere. Thus, perhaps the best course for me is encouraging both students and professionals with that urge for going to indeed dream large and imagine greatly — but not just for what we want to do. We need also to consider what we can and need to learn, so that, as Sister Luise says, "We can be genuine partners in development, at the service of the people whose lives we want to share."

Debra Carney
Author's email:

Debra Carney teaches in the Jacobson Center for Writing, Teaching and Learning at Smith College.

Higher Ed as a Weapon

Those of us who call ourselves international educators often become overly absorbed in the minutiae of our work, obsessing over various quantitative and qualitative indicators of success. After all, it's exhilarating, rewarding and unrelenting. We bask in the glow of accomplishment and gratification, knowing that we can make a difference in the lives of individuals and even nations.

There is much more to our work, however, than the warm and fuzzy feeling that comes from helping a young person realize her dream of overseas study or bringing peoples closer together. It is not all about sitting around the proverbial campfire, hand in hand, singing "It's a Small World (After All)."

By assuming a technocratic stance, we fail to ask ourselves such fundamental questions as: Whose agenda are we advancing? Whose bidding are we doing? In a very real sense we miss the forest for the trees. A 2008 diplomatic memo about the role America can play in reforming Vietnam’s education system provides an intriguing and instructive case in point, and shows the extent to which our work can be used as a tool of soft power.

The Memo

A diplomatic cable known as the "U.S.-Vietnam Education Memo," which originated in the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi in the spring of 2008 and surreptitiously found its way onto the Internet, offers telling examples and revealing insights into the use of education as a tool of soft power.

Its 4,330 words and eight pages, chock-full of optimistic references to seizing opportunities and capitalizing on the admiration of Vietnamese for the U.S. higher education system, contain a Chief of Mission's well-documented, cogently argued and passionate appeal. The memo begins with a sweeping indictment of Vietnamese higher education and an unvarnished hope:

"Moving from today’s failed system, protected by a hide-bound and largely unqualified hierarchy of educators, will not be easy, but the United States has a unique opportunity to make a big difference and put its stamp on Vietnam's education system well into the future... If we walk through this open door [my italics], we will be engaging, with the explicit support of top leaders, in a unique opportunity to profoundly influence on [sic] Vietnam's educational system."

It ends with an action request entitled "New Educational Programs Require New Washington Resources." "While we are already making progress," the authors note with a degree of self-satisfaction and eager anticipation, "greater resources will allow us to advance this agenda much further."

While the memo includes noble references to helping Vietnam "produce the managers and skilled workers needed to keep its economic expansion on track and to lift more of the population out of poverty," the core message is expressed most succinctly and powerfully in this passage: "Adding new foreign assistance resources now and supporting the creation of a wide range of strategic public-private partnerships will maximize American influence on Vietnam’s educational system and thus on the future shape of Vietnamese society."

The U.S. is portrayed as a knight in shining armor, with its renowned can-do attitude and munificent spirit, coming to the rescue of millions of desperate Vietnamese students and parents. An example of this messianic complex, infused with wishful thinking, reads as follows: "In responding to Vietnam's call, we would ensure not only that Vietnam's tens of millions of students, but also their education-obsessed parents, see the United States as a key partner in their personal and collective futures."

Over half of Vietnam's population is under 25 years of age, which means that the "American War,” as it is known in Vietnam, is something most Vietnamese have learned about only from textbooks and family members. This consciousness, combined with an openness to and curiosity about the world, including generally positive perceptions of the U.S., creates favorable conditions to influence a generation and, possibly, the future of a country. At least, this is the wish expressed in the memo.

In The Limits of Power -- The End of American Exceptionalism, Andrew Bacevich describes American exceptionalism, a unique incarnation of U.S. nationalism that is of particular relevance to Vietnam, in the following way:

"Humility imposes an obligation of a different sort. It summons Americans to see themselves without blinders. The enemy of humility is sanctimony, which gives rise to the conviction that American values and beliefs are universal and that the nation itself serves providentially assigned purposes. This conviction finds expression in a determination to remake the world in what we imagine to be America's image."

In essence, education is seen as the ultimate soft power tool, a highly effective means of influence and a far-reaching agent of change in a long-term strategy to mold Vietnam in America's image, accomplishing through peaceful means what the United States failed to achieve through those of a military nature in the Second Indochina War.

'Just Because I'm Paranoid Doesn't Mean They're Not Out to Get Me'

What is so odious about the memo is not the incendiary rhetoric, the condescending tone, or the lack of veracity of the information presented. The facts, figures, analysis and assertion that Vietnam's higher education system is in crisis are on the mark and mirror what you find in the state-controlled Vietnamese media on an almost daily basis. It is that the United States brazenly seeks to exploit a glaring weakness in Vietnamese society for geopolitical gain, to walk through an open door, as it were.

The Vietnamese have in general long since "moved on" vis-a-vis the war, a salve to many Americans who come to Vietnam for the first time, anxious about how they will be perceived and treated. But Americans, U.S. nongovernmental organizations (NGOs,) and the U.S. government nonetheless retain a "special" status because of the bloodstained history between the two nations. This translates into more attention, increased scrutiny and greater suspicion than for other governments and organizations.

After all, three million Vietnamese perished in the war and millions of survivors suffered as a result of the debilitating U.S.-led economic embargo that was imposed in 1975 and lifted in 1994, a prelude to the normalization of diplomatic relations between the former enemies a year later. There are living reminders of the physical legacy of the war in the remaining Amerasians, veterans and others who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD) and the hundreds of thousands of victims -- young and old -- of Agent Orange and Unexploded Ordnance (UXO).

From an official Vietnamese perspective the U.S. strategy outlined in the memo is a textbook example of why "peaceful evolution," a long-term attempt to effect system change through peaceful means, looms large in Vietnam's political vocabulary and why its government is (and probably should be) paranoid about U.S. intentions in its country. Not surprisingly, there are individuals and factions within the Vietnamese government and Communist Party who are concerned about what they perceive to be an orchestrated attempt to promote a "color revolution."

While the official Vietnamese view may exaggerate the scope, potency and immediacy of the threat, the general thrust of its assessment is accurate. The memo, a leaked document that reflects the true thinking and actual plans of U.S. policy makers, is compelling proof.

After reminding readers "just how much we are already doing with current resources" and "how significant and unique an opportunity we face today," it concludes with this plea and prediction: "With just a fraction of spending now devoted to some of other programs and activities in the region, we can reshape this nation in ways that guarantee a deep, positive impact for decades to come. If we want the Vietnam of 2020 to look more like South Korea than China, now is the time to act."

Following this line of reasoning, the U.S. government -- in its dreams -- could have its cake and it eat it, too: close ties to the U.S., Vietnam's metamorphosis into the Southeast Asian equivalent of South Korea and its possible emergence as a regional counterforce to Vietnam's "big brother" to the north and U.S. nemesis, China.

Of 'Blue Sky' Exercises and Pie in the Sky

The Embassy staff who penned this erstwhile confidential document seem almost giddy with excitement at the prospect that the U.S. could somehow influence the political course of events in Vietnam through educational exchange and in-country activities in support of higher education.

The official author, the former ambassador Michael Michalak, who with ample justification referred to himself as the "education ambassador" throughout most of his three-and-a-half-year tenure, concludes by noting that "Many will read this message as a 'blue sky' exercise, perhaps shaking their heads in wonder that a Chief of Mission would forward such a broad range of suggestions. Clearly, our proposals need to be considered within the universe of competing demands."

Aside from the officially desired impact of current and proposed in-country projects, one of the more dubious assumptions of the "US-Vietnam Education Memo" is that Vietnamese who study in the U.S. will return home not only as friends of America but as friends of the U.S. government. (In the 2009-10 academic year, there were more than 13,000 Vietnamese studying in the U.S. Vietnam ranks ninth among all places of origin, according to the Open Doors 2010 report.) The memo notes that Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung "has also asked for our help in launching the Ph.D. studies in the United States of at least 2,500 young Vietnamese, on the understanding that these men and women will return as the core of the nation’s political and academic elite in the decades to come."

The idea, so it goes, is that U.S.-educated Vietnamese will be positively predisposed toward things American, including U.S. policy objectives and Pax Americana. The official hope, steeped in arrogance and solipsism, is that many will be in a position to implement Amercentric change in the decades to come and will be amenable to doing so.

For those Vietnamese who benefit from one of the few U.S. government scholarships available to them (e.g., Fulbright Student Program, Vietnam Education Foundation) there is also the expectation that, once welcomed into the fold, alumni will feel eternally grateful for the opportunity they've been given and act accordingly down the road.

The letter and spirit of the memo are not exactly what Sen. J. William Fulbright had in mind when he proposed the creation of what has become the U.S. government's flagship scholarship program and one of its more noble undertakings. Fulbright once said about the objectives of educational exchange: "Its purpose is to acquaint Americans with the world as it is and to acquaint students and scholars from many lands with America as it is--not as we wish it were or as we might wish foreigners to see it, but exactly as it is -- which by my reckoning is an 'image' of which no American need be ashamed." (From the foreword to The Fulbright Program: A History)

Like any country, the United States has its strengths and successes -- models, approaches, ways of thinking -- that could be adapted and emulated in a country like Vietnam. The U.S. also has its shortcomings, red flags and cautionary tales. It is, in the words of Anatole Lieven, author of America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism, "a mortal nation among nations," not the shining city on a hill that many of its citizens believe it to be. The notion that international educational exchange should contribute to remaking other societies in the United States' image is not only cynical and misguided; it is also delusional -- so much pie in the sky.

Mark A. Ashwill
Author's email:

Mark A. Ashwill is managing director and founder of Capstone Vietnam, a Hanoi-based human resource development company. He was country director of the Institute of International Education in Vietnam from 2005 to 2009, and is author of Vietnam Today: A Guide to a Nation at a Crossroads (with Thai Ngoc Diep). He blogs at An International Educator in Vietnam.


Subscribe to RSS - Study abroad
Back to Top