For Students Going Overseas, an ‘America First’ Presidency Complicates Their Studies

June 09, 2017

Jordan Mason
A student from Roger Williams University helps local residents dig a hole for a park bench during a study-abroad program in Jamaica operated by the global service-learning organization Amizade. Under the Trump presidency, international educators have been striving to prepare students for potential differences in how they are perceived when they travel internationally.

Higher education has been focused on the potential impact of President Trump’s policies on international students ever since he announced a ban on travelers, including student-visa holders, from a half-dozen predominantly Muslim countries.

But educators have also been focused, albeit more quietly, on the effects of the current political climate on American students going overseas. The Forum on Education Abroad, a membership group of colleges and study-abroad providers, packed some 300 people into a town-hall meeting on the issue at its annual conference this spring, a late addition to the program.

Among the concerns: Would students be subject to anti-American sentiment at a time when it’s running high? With "America First" rhetoric ascendant at home, would fewer choose to go overseas? And how could study-abroad advisers, long attuned to easing culture shock, prepare students for an unexpected, and perhaps unwanted, role as unofficial ambassadors for Mr. Trump’s America?

"It’s natural for students to feel uncomfortable going abroad — it’s not only natural, it’s healthy," says Kendall Brostuen, director of international programs at Brown University and one of the leaders of the town-hall meeting. "But their assumptions will probably be challenged like they’ve never been challenged before."

Happily, there have been few reported instances of hostility toward Americans studying abroad and, among the colleges and providers contacted by The Chronicle, little sign so far of a drop-off in student numbers. Some, in fact, report enrollments are up this fall for programs abroad.

Still, international educators say they must be attentive to constantly shifting political realities and their fallout. There are practical and policy concerns, such as whether to permit undocumented students to study abroad, given the Trump administration’s uncertain position on a program that, under President Obama, blocked the deportation of people brought to the United States as children. The president’s budget, meanwhile, proposes halving the State Department bureau that supports educational exchanges, which could curtail the number of students who go overseas on the Fulbright and other scholarship programs.

Social-Media Screening

Brandon Blache-Cohen, executive director of Amizade, which leads global service-learning trips, said he never expected to spend so much time talking about social media during his programs’ orientations; federal officials recently announced that foreign visitors’ social-media accounts could now be screened, leading some to question whether American citizens could also be subject to such vetting.

Like many others in the field, Amizade has long coached students to be aware of cultural differences when going overseas. But Sue Mennicke, associate dean of international programs at Franklin & Marshall College, says that since the election, she feels a greater responsibility to ready students for how they might be perceived when they travel internationally.

The people they encounter abroad — whether fellow students, host families, or even taxi drivers — may be well informed on, and have well-formed opinions about, political and other developments in the United States. "Before you go abroad, you might never think of yourself as being of this place," Ms. Mennicke says. "Suddenly, you’re stamped with something when you leave these borders."

At Franklin & Marshall, where about half the graduating class studies abroad, much of the preparation comes in the form of one-on-one advising. Other institutions have more formal pre-departure programs. At Susquehanna University, which, since 2009 has required its entire student body to "study away," either internationally or domestically, students must go through a seven-week, one-credit course before leaving campus.

Scott Manning, Susquehanna’s dean of global programs, says he didn’t meaningfully alter the content of the course when he taught a section earlier this year. What changed, Mr. Manning says, was his awareness of the political divisions among his own students. He found himself "a little on eggshells" when talking about sensitive topics like how to deal with conflicting values abroad.

Mr. Manning’s antennae may have been up because of a January-term course he led to Cuba. The dozen participants on the trip, who included a leader in the campus’s Republican club as well as several students whose politics leaned left, agreed among themselves not to talk politics.

As it turns out, the concerns were unnecessary — the Cubans they met were far more interested in discussing the recent death of Fidel Castro than the results of the American presidential election. "Our view," Mr. Manning says, "may have reflected our own ethnocentrism."

Mr. Manning’s attentiveness to accommodating divergent points of view extends to classrooms abroad. A number of colleges and program providers say that a particular focus since the election has been working with faculty and staff members at their overseas sites.

The Council on International Educational Exchange, or CIEE, has held seminars and on-site training for its instructors, many of whom are hired locally. In other cultures, people may be "more direct" in expressing their political opinions, even in a classroom setting, says Maritheresa Frain, the nonprofit provider’s executive vice president for study abroad. With more than 350 college partners, CIEE has been "intentional" in working with its faculty members to "make sure our classrooms are supportive, inclusive learning environments for all our students," Ms. Frain says.

Brown, which sends about a third of its students overseas, is fast-tracking an effort to set aside spaces at its study-abroad sites where students can have "facilitated conversations" around complex issues.

Reverse Culture Shock

Jose B. Alvarez, senior vice president for academic affairs and initiatives at CEA Study Abroad, another provider, says it’s just as important to think about how to best help students adjust when they return to the United States. Although they can follow developments back home through social media or international networks like CNN, students abroad may be somewhat isolated from the round-the-clock coverage.

Ali Webb, a New York University student, wrote in the Washington Square News, the independent student newspaper, that the semester she spent this spring in London has been "an escape."

"I am an ocean away from the nearly constant protests in New York and the divided opinions of my hometown in Virginia," Ms. Webb wrote. "Major speeches and announcements, which usually happen during American prime-time, often occur while the United Kingdom sleeps. It is possible to wait at a bus stop, go for a walk, or sit in a café without hearing Trump’s name."

Typically, Mr. Alvarez says, students returning from study abroad go through a sort of reverse culture shock because they’ve grown and changed so much in their time away. "In this case," he says, "it’s the political climate in the United States that is changing almost constantly."

Despite their apprehension that the current anti-global political mood could reverberate in study abroad, many educators say that events of recent months have left them even more committed to providing students with exposure to different cultures and ideas.

"Our work has never been more vital," says Mr. Blache-Cohen of Amizade. "The world is in need of a lot more empathy."

Karin Fischer writes about international education, colleges and the economy, and other issues. She’s on Twitter @karinfischer, and her email address is