Positive experiences of participants in study abroad programs include a wide range of benefits, that cover personal, interpersonal, cultural and global skill development. In a very concise and to-the-point article, our friends and colleagues at NAFSA: Association of International Educators explore these benefits further. The Senior Director of Education Abroad Services at NAFSA, Caroline Donovan White explains why study abroad is not simply a vacation but an educational journey that opens students’ worlds far beyond themselves and provides them with skills that last a lifetime.
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Study abroad is a transformative experience of learning and growth for students. Although less than 1% of the U.S. student community participates in study abroad, we know that when a college student elects to take advantage of such a priceless opportunity, the borders that exist between peoples, whether defined or abstract, stop obstructing interaction.
Students who challenge themselves to make a deeper connection with our rapidly changing world are more adaptable, accomplished contributors to it. Students who immerse themselves in other cultures draw the world nearer to themselves. And the world reciprocates.
Study abroad is not a vacation or a trip. It opens students’ world far beyond themselves, an educational journey with dividends that last a lifetime. NAFSA summarizes the wondrous benefits of study abroad with seven C’s:
Study abroad compels students to challenge themselves to grow beyond their comfort zones. They must leave home and enter a literally foreign environment. College itself is demanding of students’ preparedness to be on their own; and then the intellectual and emotional maturity necessary to succeed on campus is intensified when a student goes abroad. It is an opportunity to further broaden and open minds. Study abroad demands thoughtful, considerate, sensitive behavior in order to get the most from the experience.
Far beyond the capabilities of a home campus, study abroad enables creative and engaging class experiences relevant to a student’s learning. Additionally, study abroad expands the number of courses available to a student exponentially. Until a student studies abroad they may be learning in a classroom or from a textbook that can only describe the experience of others in the abstract. Once a student studies abroad they compel themselves to learn real-world lessons in the real world, which in turn better serves them in the classroom and beyond. A biology major from the Midwest wading into the flora of the Amazon delta is discovering life previously only known to her in two dimensions. A Philadelphia political science major, the birthplace of American democracy, attending an election in Bhutan familiarizes himself with the challenges of growing a new democracy.
Living in a different country gives students a much more nuanced appreciation of home, along with how to interact in their temporary homes abroad. Students realize the common problems all nationalities face. Study abroad students uniquely grasp the need for thoughtful engagement with others, understanding how behavior in one region can greatly differ in another, and how these lessons can carry forward after the study abroad experience concludes. They better understand and empathize with circumstances their temporary home must navigate while facing common issues and potentially many more that may not reach our shores.
Communicating across cultures is oftentimes perilous, even with the acceptance English has found in the world. Still, the best avenue to learning a foreign language and gaining competency and fluency is unquestionably living in a country or area where that language is spoken. Grasping how certain gestures, postures or colloquialisms can lead to a misunderstanding (and how to avoid them) demands advanced verbal and nonverbal communication skills. Learning how to think and express oneself in a language not your own provides a student with the tolerance and flexibility to connect when they encounter situations that exceed their vocabulary, for example, between the engineering and the customer service departments of a future employer.
Multiple studies have shown that students learn best and easier in smaller sized classes where they feel a connection to the instructor, including one-on-one opportunities. Study abroad may involve travelling and meeting routinely with a particular individual or small group of faculty. That time with instructors en route to a cultural event or shared over a meal exceeds the time a student receives at home, regardless of how committed an instructor may be. As a result, students become comfortable relating not only to the citizens of their host country, but also with familiar authority figures on a more personal level.
The marketplace dictates the skills necessary for career success. Increasingly, the marketplace demands more globally literate workers, as barriers continue to fade when connecting and conducting business across continents and oceans. These individuals are prized by employers for their hands-on experience, perspective of our shared and interconnected world, and a better understanding of the role our country plays in it. Only 1% of college students are taking advantage of this invaluable opportunity to grow and learn. Those fortunate few enter a workforce with an advantage over the vast majority of their peers.
Above all, the opportunity to study abroad is a compelling learning experience unlike domestic opportunities. The time abroad benefits students, their campus, their community and our country. Knowledge of other peoples and cultures – on both sides – is a national security imperative. Additionally, study abroad students have shown greater overall academic performance over the life of their academic careers. They carry higher GPAs and are more likely to complete their degrees.
The call to promote easier access to study abroad opportunities, and to a more diverse range of candidates, should echo throughout the halls of Congress and campus administration buildings nationwide. Constructing the intellectual infrastructure of globally literate students the United States will need to enter the competitive workforce, and to maintain our position of leadership in the world, should be a national priority.
This will not be accomplished by trivializing study abroad, but rather by celebrating it and its virtues. Find resources for education abroad professionals and help us celebrate study abroad by visiting www.nafsa.org/earesources.