Study Abroad Is Often Not All It Should Be

September 21, 2009

With communications now instant and 24/7, we know a great deal about events in other lands. Elections in Lebanon and election protests in Iran, missiles and captive journalists in North Korea, the anniversaries of D-Day in Europe and Tiananmen Square in China—we are constantly reminded that Thomas L. Friedman got it right: The world really is flat.

The importance of cross-cultural understanding is manifest. It is not surprising, then, that international education and partnerships have become central to the core missions of many leading colleges and universities.

The Chronicle has regularly reported over the past few years on significant new international ventures by all types of higher-education institutions. Colleges seem to be falling all over themselves trying to establish the right arrangements and structures for partnerships with institutions or governments in other countries, including the development of free-standing or branch campuses.

In the old days, the international activities of colleges focused principally on attracting outstanding scholars and students from other countries. Today's approach is far more expansive. As the provost of Duke University, Peter Lange, said not long ago in the university's student newspaper, the goal of Duke's international planning is to "substantially increase the degree to which we extend the university into international settings rather than treating the university as a magnet."

The complexity of establishing major programs at the level that many institutions are attempting—a complexity now compounded by the fiscal crisis—can be daunting, requiring a high level of due diligence to ensure the quality of the enterprise and a return on the significant investment of human and financial resources. Already some institutions have pulled back from widely and proudly announced international collaborations with, of course, considerable less publicity than their kickoffs. I am reminded of something a wise chief executive of a Fortune 500 company, who was experienced in global markets and absolutely in favor of international partnerships for colleges, said a few years ago. He cautioned that in thinking about significant international investment in new partnerships, particularly in the case of China, "the most important planning you can do is to identify your exit strategy up front."

His point was twofold: First, an institution needs to understand its mission and how the proposed programmatic and physical collaborations will reinforce and not distort that mission. Second, given the vagaries of international politics, economic systems, and cultural differences, administrators and faculty members must be rigorous in evaluating their options, including the possible need to withdraw. That seems obvious, but I suspect that in the changing environment of international education, the latter consideration is sometimes given short shrift. College and university leaders would be wise to heed the executive's admonition.

A specific case in point is study abroad, which has become an industry unto itself. The emphasis on cross-cultural understanding and expansion of research opportunities for undergraduates has led to an explosion in such programs. The Institute of International Education reports that, in 2006, some 242,000 American students studied in foreign countries—roughly a 150-percent increase over just a decade ago.

Perhaps the most significant change is the range of countries in which undergraduate students routinely study, including many that might have been considered exotic a few decades ago. Today's students study not just in Western Europe or English-speaking countries, but in Brazil, China, Hungary, Kenya, Madagascar, Romania, and South Korea, to name a representative sample. Areas of study go well beyond languages. Options are offered for classroom-based or field-based study, credit or noncredit. Students can study for a semester, a year, a summer, or even one month. Many institutions send their faculty members to teach in programs to help ensure the quality of the offerings.

We've come a long way since 1923, when the University of Delaware established what it says was the first study-abroad program, in France, after a professor who was a World War I veteran made the case that travel and study could promote cross-cultural understanding. Several years later, Smith College also set up a study-abroad program, in Paris. My mother, a French major at Smith, spent a year in the mid-1930s studying at the Sorbonne. She was one of a very small group of Americans who studied abroad, most all of whom studied languages in Europe.

Clearly the thrust of those early programs was to improve the intellectual maturation of the student in his or her chosen field through structured and intensive cultural immersion. My mother lived with a French family. Her courses were rigorous—as rigorous, she told me, as the demanding courses at Smith. She traveled some with her French girlfriends, but as a 19-year-old woman whose parents, and I suspect her college, were concerned about safety, she regretted that she was not able to travel as freely as she wanted.

Today, surfing Web sites of colleges for international opportunities is something of an eye opener. Eckerd College advertises that its students can study at more than 100 institutions around the world, and the Web site of Eckerd's internationally oriented president, Donald R. Eastman III, proudly reports that the college has led the nation in the percentage of students who studied abroad in a single year. Washington University in St. Louis notes that every department at the university has designated a study-abroad adviser.

Franklin & Marshall College, my alma mater, identifies international education as "an integral part of the entire undergraduate experience. . . . not as a term away from campus, but as an encounter seamlessly connected with a student's entire education before, during, and after time spent off campus." And Yale University, which for years openly de-emphasized study abroad on the grounds that students were better educated at Yale's New Haven campus, now champions it.

But I must confess that I have some reservations about the explosion of study abroad. In conversations with dozens of students from different institutions, I have heard a mixed bag of assessments.

Students who live with families or in residence arrangements with students from other countries tend to describe quite different experiences, of course, than do students who study in English-speaking countries or who study in non-English-speaking countries but live in residences largely with other American students. Also not surprisingly, students who study in the summer often characterize their program in different ways than students who had deeper immersion experiences over a semester or a year.

I don't believe I've talked with a single student who has studied abroad who hasn't found the experience enriching. But I've talked with enough students from various institutions to develop a concern that the study-abroad experience, in many cases, is not all it should or could be. As a very smart student now on a Marshall fellowship—someone who clearly appreciates the value of internationalism—told me last year, "For many students, study abroad is a semester off, not a semester on."

Summer students have routinely said that they loved the experience but have acknowledged a certain lack of rigor in their courses. On a plane I took to Europe this summer for a fellowship in Germany, a bright and engaging student sitting next to me was candid that he consciously chose to do his study abroad in the summer because he "needed a break" from college.

In fact, many students have reported that the rigor of the courses they take abroad does not compare with that at their campus. In many cases, when asked what aspect of the study-abroad experience was the best, they talk about travel. Since some of the programs they have attended are structured to offer classes only two to three days a week, students have wonderful opportunities to travel on extended weekends.

Surely travel in other lands is enriching and can be wonderfully educational in important ways different from classroom learning. I have the impression, however, that for many students, study abroad has become the equivalent of an extracurricular activity built around travel. Students grow considerably from engagement in extracurricular activities, and campuses expend considerable resources to help them learn and grow from out-of-class experiences. But the best institutions understand that extracurricular programs are principally intended to complement and round out a student's educational experience and not to be the core of that experience.

Campuses large and small should work to make study abroad integral to a student's education. I know, for example, a Washington University student who majored in religion who conducted a research project in a mountain village in Peru with a small tribe of indigenous Jews as part of her senior thesis. Students who major in cultural anthropology at Duke have an opportunity to study in Ghana—but they first take a prerequisite course and then a course after the immersion experience that builds on the learning they acquired during their time in Africa.

Such immersion experiences, coupled with the integration of the study-abroad experience into the student's major and course work, seem to me to be what all institutions should encourage. A number of colleges and universities do exactly that. Indeed, their commitment is consistent with the initial approach to study abroad that my mother experienced. They also match the rigor and expectations of personal growth and intellectual work that they strive to build into the academic curriculum offered at their campuses.

More institutions should follow their lead. Just as colleges should carefully consider any international partnerships, they would do well to review their study-abroad offerings to determine if their rhetoric and marketing is consistent with the reality—and with their commitment to provide their students with the best possible experience.

John F. Burness is a visiting professor in the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. He previously served as senior vice president for public affairs and government relations at the university.