The Seven Cardinal Virtues of Study Abroad

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:

1. Challenge

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.

2. Curriculum

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.

3. Compassion

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.

4. Communication

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.

5. Connection

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.


6. Career

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.

7. Compelling

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

6 Steps to Promote Intercultural Learning in Your Classroom

Introducing high school students to intercultural learning is what AFS knows how to do – but can schools and teachers also join in this initiative? We think so! Check out this post with some very practical tips and tools about how a classroom can be an introductory ground for developing global citizenship skills. This blog post, originally published in the Global Classrooms newsletter, comes to us from Sarah Lorya, the Senior Executive Assistant & School Relations Specialist at AFS-USA. What other ideas and practices are you using in your school?

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Milton Bennet, from the Intercultural Research Development Institute defines intercultural learning as an “area of research, study and application of knowledge about different cultures, their differences and similarities. On the one hand, it includes a theoretical and academic approach. On the other hand, it comprises practical applications such as learning to negotiate with people from different cultures, living with people from different cultures, living in a different culture and the prospect of peace between different cultures”.

Encouraging students to explore culture in the classroom, can be one of the most effective ways to expose them to world around them and promote critical 21st century skills. Here are 6 easy ways to inspire intercultural learning among students in the classroom and beyond.

1. Define Culture
Defining the meaning of culture for students, can be one of the best ways to begin the dialogue on intercultural learning. AFS-USA has outline a variety of lesson plans and eLearning to help guide the discussion. For example, The Hidden Ways in Which Culture Differs lesson plan, uses the iceberg analogy to teach students to look at the hidden dimensions when comparing different cultures.

2. Study Abroad
Participating in a study abroad program is one of the most effective ways to expose students to a different culture and allow them to see the world from a global perspective. To highlight, AFS-USA provides programs ranging from 2 week Global Prep Program to a yearlong cultural immersion program. With a variety of countries to explore, a study abroad experience will leave students with a renewed vision of what it means to be a global citizen.

3. Host an Exchange Student
While participating in a cultural exchange can be a life changing experience, welcoming an exchange student into your classroom may be just as rewarding. The Department of State offers a variety of opportunities for those interested in hosting an exchange student. In fact, AFS-USA supports Public Diplomacy Initiatives that bring students to the US and sends Americans abroad. These programs include, Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange ProgramNSLI for Youth, and Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study.

4. Join or Start a Language Club
Language learning can be one of the best ways to introduce students to intercultural learning. It not only enhances their curiosity for the global world, but it also helps to develop critical skills for college and career readiness. As educators, you can encourage students to start or join language club in your school and explore different dimensions about that culture.

5. Coordinate a Cultural Celebration
Coordinating a cultural celebration at your school can be of the most enjoyable ways to get students involved in learning more about a different culture. By infusing different global themes, such as music, cultural foods, and art, you can begin the dialogue for intercultural learning. The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs especially encourages cultural activities and celebration during International Education Week (November 14-18, 2016).

6. Participate in a Virtual Exchange
Virtual Classroom Exchange is one of the best ways to utilize technology as a means to foster intercultural dialogue. For example, as a teacher you can collaborate with an organization such as iEARN, which operates in over 140 countries to bring students and educators together to coordinate interactive global projects.

These six simple steps will not only enhance your students’ curiosity for global learning, but will spark their interest in what it means to be a global citizen. We encourage you to include these steps in your curriculum and inspire your students to see the world as their classroom.



AFS to Condemn all Types of Discrimination

Just a few days after the March attacks in the Brussels airport and metro, a group of European AFS volunteers from 15 different countries gathered in this city to help increase the impact of AFS in fighting Islamophobia and to promote interreligious dialogue in European communities. A deeper look into the discussions from the seminar, Islam as a religion in Europe and what AFS can do to further its peace-building mission is brought to us by Stasa Stojkov, a volunteer at AFS Serbia and a member of the European Pool of Trainers of the European Federation for Intercultural Learning. We invite AFSers interested in exploring the topic further to register for the Volunteer Summer Summit in August this year, where similar topics will be explored.

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It is the mission of AFS as an organization to foster intercultural dialogue in order to create a more just and peaceful world. Yes, this is a statement that probably all AFSers can identify with and agree upon. However, the understanding of what constitutes a peaceful world might differ. The same goes for the term responsibility. Reflecting upon the mission of AFS in the times in which the organization was founded, and applying it to the context we live in today, the group of participants and trainers of the “Islam in Europe – between assimilation and rejection” seminar organized by the European Federation for Intercultural Learning (EFIL – the umbrella organization for AFS in Europe), decided it was time for certain thoughts not to be assumed, but rather said more explicitly. The seminar took place in Brussels, in April 2016, and was supported by the European Youth Foundation of the Council of Europe within EFIL’s Annual Theme “Building Peaceful Societies”.

Islam as a religion has been present on the European grounds from a very early age. Already in the 7th century, the Umayyad Empire was established on the territories of what we today know as Spain and Portugal. Furthermore, the Ottoman Empire was present on the Balkan Peninsula and beyond from the 14th century, up until the establishment of the secular Republic of Turkey in early 20th century. In addition, Europe, its conquerors, travelers and representatives have also played their role in the regions where Islam was, and today still is, the predominant religion. Starting in the 11th century with the crusades, through colonialism and up until recent times and wars, such as the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan, Europe has marked its presence outside continent’s boundaries in a certainly significant and often negative manner.

In spite of all these interactions, in times of both peace and war, there is still a very strong line between us and them. Othering, or alienating, is a process of labeling someone as fundamentally different than you, and as a mechanism it can help spread discrimination in all forms. It is strongly present in the process of spreading Islamophobia, and the trainers and participants of the seminar recognized it as a repetitive pattern present in the media, politics and other aspects of their daily lives.  The idea of us, Europeans, representing our values and things we fought for throughout the years in order to become this democratic continent we so proudly claim we are today. And them, the others, with their seemingly backwards mentality representing values such as traditional gender roles that are directly against what we as Europe stand for. With this chain of thoughts, the idea of living together becomes, in the best case scenario, merely, a life next to each other and not with each other. Othering, supported by our school books, media and art influences our perceptions of the society and world we live in. Without fostering critical thought, it is easy for people to fall into the claws of biased media and politicians wanting to create powerful headlines. This is where AFS steps in. This is where AFS helps us understand that what we see is only one of many perspectives and that what we perceive as threatening or old-fashioned is actually an enriching and wonderful element in other people’s lives. This is where AFS confronts prejudice.

The media coverage of Muslims is not only predominantly negative, but often presented in a way which is meant to cause fear. In a reality where the first thing you see in the very morning is a new attack, numbers of lost lives, information about troops entering or withdrawing from a certain area, it is easy to let the fear dominate our lives. However, that irrational fear, whether it is the fear of losing someone or something we cherish in our lives, only helps to support the image of the other being a threat. The word terrorist is immediately attached to the word Muslim, and vice versa. In the state of fear, the fact that there are around 1.6 billion Muslims in the world and that those belonging to the extremist groups constitute maybe 1% of them, never gets mentioned. When a person without a Muslim background commits an act of terrorism, they are seen as lunatics, not as terrorists. However, as soon as we can attach the word Muslim to a person suspected for such an act, all the other labels such as nationality, marital status, or profession get neglected.

Another word often mentioned in AFS is diversity. We believe we are diverse, we aim to be even more inclusive and we appreciate the differences each individual brings to the group. However, so often we forget that, in order to be truly diverse, we sometimes have to look beyond what is already there. We have to give a chance to someone who seems so different that it is difficult even to imagine we could have something in common. There, on the very edge of our comfort zone, we might take that step which will ensure a better world for all of us. As some voices are not strong enough to express how much they would appreciate being a part of a reality such as the AFS one, embracing them may sometimes not be enough. We should be more proactive in searching for, and including those who might seem different, and who might not have the opportunity to join AFS that easily.

One could discuss whether addressing Islamophobia explicitly is an AFS responsibility or not. However, bearing in mind that AFS is a non-political and non-religious organization, the group of this seminar attendees agreed that condemning all types of discrimination is the least we can do. Standing up for those who need us to speak up and including everyone who shares our vision regardless of race, sexual orientation, religion, nationality or any other label is our duty in order to truly fulfill that mission we’ve been proudly caring for more than 100 years.


5 Reasons to Attend the Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication

The Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication (SIIC) has a 40-year history of providing educational and professional development on intercultural theory, training and facilitation. This year SIIC will take place between 13-29 July with over 50 different offerings of five-day, three-day and one-day workshops.

Take a look at the the top 5 reasons for attending SIIC according to Ana Carolina Cassiano, a 2015 AFS-SIIC scholar and currently the Fellow for the Intercultural Link Learning Program at AFS International:

1. The learning experience: you will be immersed in an intense and stimulating learning environment not only during the workshops, but also over mealtimes, in the corridors and in the evening social events.

2. The people: you will meet and connect with like-minded people – key scholars of the intercultural field and colleagues from different professional, academic and national backgrounds. The SIIC atmosphere is supportive and inclusive.

3. The place: you will be at the beautiful Reed College campus which is filled with Pacific Northwest native plants, wildlife and a lake, in Portland, Oregon, USA. Taking a walk between activities while you reflect on your learning experiences will be revigorating and inspiring!

4. The food: you also need some nutrients in your body in order to enjoy all the food for thought you will be getting. The food served during SIIC is cafeteria-style, but also fresh, made from scratch, with a diverse menu inspired by cuisines from around the world, mostly organic and locally sourced.

5. The social activities: you will also have the chance to relax and have a good time in the evenings. One of the highlights is the AFS-sponsored karaoke night. Either you lead the mic, sing-along to your all-time favorites, hit the dance-floor or just cheer on your colleagues performing – you’re in for a good time!

For more information about SIIC, visit the event website. SIIC is sponsored by the Intercultural Communication Institute (ICI) headed by Janet Bennett, one of the most important players in the intercultural field, editor of the SAGE Encyclopedia of Intercultural Competence, and a longstanding partner of AFS.

AFS Intercultural Programs is pleased to be able to offer special scholarship opportunities for AFS volunteers and staff. If you are interested in this possibility, hurry up – the application deadline for AFS-SIIC Scholarships for AFS volunteers and staff is 25 April. Contact for more information.

All you need is love… and chocolate?

AFS recently asked our social media followers to describe their intercultural experience with 5 emojis – the results we’ve seen have been fascinating! While most responses contained hearts, smiling faces and flags of the countries our students now consider their second home, the thing that was also the staple of these posts is — food.

Meals and drinks are well-known artifacts of cultures, and interculturalists often place them at the top of a cultural iceberg. That means that when you discover a new place or culture, differences and similarities in food will be one of the first and easy elements to spot. Exploring different food and cuisine will make an exciting introduction to the place you are at, and send you off to dig deeper for more meaningful impressions.

A recent article by an international education resource, the ICEF Monitor, claims that food has a signifiant role in the satisfaction and experience of exchange students, which can be a source of differentiation and competitive advantage for hosting organizations. This is not to say that food overshadows educational benefits and opportunities for personal growth, social interactions and global awareness, but food is an important consideration for two reasons.

Students are becoming more interested in healthy, local, organic food choices, and for many there is a more profound emotional need for food that is familiar. If this basic need is not satisfied, this negativity can overshadow other aspects of the study abroad experience.

While exploring foreign food can be exciting, it can also be stressful and a contributing factor to culture shock: deciding how and what to eat, newly on your own, with overwhelming choices. This is where the support of host families and local volunteers is crucial – their role as cultural informants, insiders in a culture willing to provide more information and explanations to newcomers, keeps the students away from entering the panic zone, while comfortably learning new things from their experiences.

Finally, last week, the World Health Day was marked around the world. Here are some AFS advice on staying healthy – with all other cultural considerations, food place an important role here.

1. Eat local with locals! Food brings people together and as an exchange student experiencing traditional foods is one of the best ways to become familiar with the culture. Try everything and enjoy every bite, just remember to balance what you eat. Also, always finish your veggies!

2. Get moving! Joining a sports team or club can be one of the best experiences of your time abroad. Not only will you make tons of friends, but all that exercise will give you energy for your intercultural adventure.

3. Happy is healthy! Being abroad can put you under a lot of pressure, but it is very important to remember that being healthy is not about how you look, but about how you feel.

What else would you add to these?