An Expanded Notion of Study Abroad

Engaging students with people who practice international traditions and cultures within the United States must become the focus, writes William G. Durden.

July 29, 2020
 
 
istock.com/hudiemm

Numerous colleges and universities as well as third-party providers are confronting the need to reinvent study abroad. That need has grown increasingly urgent recently in light of COVID-19, which has resulted in significant limitations on travel overseas, student hesitancy to leave the United States and be subject to emergency evacuation, and parental concern for their children’s safety in such programs.

But the pandemic alone has not prompted the rethinking. Well before COVID, far too few students were studying abroad -- only about 300,056 of the roughly 16 million undergraduates in the United States studied abroad in 2017-18, or less than 2 percent, according to the Institute of International Education. And those students who participated were not the historically underserved in higher education. In 2017-18, only 6.1 percent of students of the already low overall percentage studying abroad, for example, were Black or African American.

Indeed, access has long been the Achilles' heel of study abroad. Yet COVID has made broadening the opportunity to study abroad to a much more diverse group of students even more of a challenge. In a world of limited mobility, colleges must come up innovative solutions to introduce more American students to the thoughts and perspectives of people of international origin. Such access is even more imperative following the killing of George Floyd and a pervasive recognition throughout the U.S. of a systemic failure to affirm positively the identity of people of diverse races and extend them respect. Respect is often accomplished, of course, through direct exposure to and familiarity with the thoughts, aspirations and practices of those different from you -- an abiding objective of study abroad.

Given the circumstances, it’s clear that study within the borders of the United States must become the focus. Only in that way can colleges and universities safely and successfully meet student desire to understand people who are different from themselves and achieve their mission-critical goals.

Fortunately, new forms of domestic study based on traditional study abroad were already existing pre-COVID-19, and others are emerging in its midst. Elon University, for example, has established domestic study centers in the ethnically diverse cities of Los Angeles and New York City and is also creating courses that focus upon diverse cultural challenges located in the United States. For example, as part of its Study USA, Elon has offered the course Arizona U.S./Mexico Borderlands: Culture, Environment and Immigration. Such a course arguably permits students access to peoples from another country who speak a language other than English yet largely within the borders of this country. Further, it allows them to engage directly in a shared global challenge: immigration.

Dickinson College’s American and Global Mosaics -- intensive, interdisciplinary, research and experiential learning programs designed around ethnographic fieldwork and community immersion -- offer numerous domestic options, several quite close to the campus. The Carlisle Mosaic focuses upon the diversity, including pockets of immigrants, in the small central Pennsylvania city in which the college is located. Dickinson also offers a mosaic that introduces students to the migrant population originating in Mexico that travels annually to harvest apples in a county just south of where the institution is located. Students use their Spanish language skills to record an oral history of this population over time. This history remains with the community as a record of their presence and an affirmation of their identity.

In addition, third-party providers, often facilitating international programs for universities, are developing U.S.-based global experiences virtually and in person, pending the lifting of pandemic travel restrictions, so as to increase access and affordability. For example, APIConnect, a recent initiative of Academic Programs International, is a virtual experience by which students can access the world internationally or domestically -- regardless of location. APIConnect's technology-enabled approach guides students to engage across cultural difference beyond the barriers of traditional study abroad. It is especially intended for learners who perceive traditional study abroad as inaccessible and unaffordable.

Such initiatives collectively represent a “school of practice,” united by offering the advantages of traditional study abroad through domestic programs. They advance important student outcomes as best outlined in the Association of American Colleges and Universities' Global Learning Value Rubric: “Through global learning, students should: 1) become informed, open-minded, and responsible people who are attentive to diversity across the spectrum of differences, 2) seek to understand how their actions affect both local and global communities, and 3) address the world's most pressing and enduring issues collaboratively and equitably.” And an article in the association's publication makes the case for domestic study programs succinctly: “While study abroad is an important educational experience that can foster the development of these desired learning outcomes and developmental skills, mindsets, and behaviors, so too are domestically based off-campus study programs.”

Yet despite the efforts to make the benefits of study abroad a more vital component of the undergraduate curriculum by expanding its geography to include the United States, more work must be done. Traditional study abroad has remained an isolated ancillary activity of higher education -- distant and excluded from vital policy-making decisions at most colleges and universities. My conversations with study abroad directors reveal that they are seldom, if at all, at the senior leadership table of their institution. And many senior international officers tell me that, while they may be part of the senior team at some institutions, it is still arguable whether their voices are heard.

Study abroad is still viewed fundamentally as a support-service activity that has traditionally managed the logistical flow of students, and sometimes faculty members, studying or teaching abroad. Its professionals have been relegated to handling the mechanics of higher education programs and, therefore, have often failed to participate in the broader pedagogical issues and challenges confronting their universities. Much study abroad office time is consumed with arranging and verifying credit transfer from coursework engaged beyond U.S. borders and aligning it with campus courses as well as setting guidelines for program safety and student success.

Such disregard of study abroad as educationally impactful to the overall mission of institutions must change, especially at a time of intense demands upon colleges and universities to expand all their students’ exposure to diverse peoples and to rid themselves of structural obstacles to that. The treatment of study abroad at many institutions is a structural obstacle to be eliminated. Inclusion of study abroad professionals in institutional leadership discussions would expose colleges and universities to rich and purposeful sources of diversity both out of country and within.

An expanded notion of study abroad -- one that includes immersive and direct engagement with people who practice international traditions and cultures within the United States, has the potential to elevate the field to a critical part of higher education pedagogy. Colleges and universities are striving to be relevant and useful in a world where students and family question the value and return on investment of higher education. Students and families increasingly desire an engaged education that is ultimately useful and provides them the knowledge and skills to have successful careers and lives in the challenging decades ahead.

And as colleges and universities work to respond concretely to a world demanding affirmation of human diversity and identity, embracing the objectives and values of study abroad within the borders of the U.S. can contribute decisively to solutions. At a moment when higher education must critically examine its own practices that have contributed to nonexposure and even rejection and abuse of those other than oneself, it is time to bring study abroad in from the cold. It is the moment to make it vastly more available through in-country adaptations.

Bio

William G. Durden is Courtesy Professor (research) in the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University, president of the International University Alliance and president emeritus of Dickinson College.

Read more by

We have retired comments and introduced Letters to the Editor. Letters may be sent to [email protected].

Read the Letters to the Editor  »

 
Back to Top