Study abroad

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
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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
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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.

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