By Paige Sullivan
As July came to an end, people gathered around their televisions to revel in Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremonies performance that kick-started the beginning of the 2012 summer Olympics. Nothing quite like the summer games reminds one of the vast numbers of nations, cultures, and peoples that exist beyond the borders of the United States. The Olympics, in particular, invite one to consider oneself in a global context.
For college students, many believe that the same can be said for studying abroad. International education opportunities come in many forms and flavors, from summers spent studying architecture across Europe, a year in Argentina living with a host family and attending a local university, or a shorter-term, faculty-led excursion through Benin. Unlike domestic forms of experiential learning, study abroad is unique in its ability to infuse a student’s education with the offerings a new country, culture, and context can provide.
Anna Cabe, a senior English major at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, found just that during her semester abroad at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland. “Studying abroad really puts a multidisciplinary education to the test. In class, you study different cultures, different subjects, etc,” she said. “Studying abroad is a practical application of that. You’re forced out of your comfort zone into an entirely new context.”
Indeed, research paints a very positive picture of the benefits of study abroad. In 2007, the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) reported that students who took part in experiential learning endeavors like study abroad described “deep learning and greater gains in learning and personal development.” Additionally, a recent article from Inside Higher Ed discussed correlations between students who study abroad and graduating on time.
Liliane Spenlé, study abroad adviser in Agnes Scott College’s Office of International Education, made a case for the usefulness of a student’s liberal arts curriculum put in a different cultural context. “Even if a student took a course abroad covering a topic about which she was already familiar, it is likely that she will learn something completely new,” she said. “For example, studying World War II from the perspective of any European country will show you how simplified, or, at least, how one-sided the US telling of that part of history is.”
Cabe described a similar situation during her time at Strathclyde. “I was in a coed uni, for instance, and trying to square my brand of feminism in a place where it wasn’t the de facto ideology, so to speak,” she said. “It really forced me to consider my own beliefs and figure out how to engage with people with very different ideas and experiences. The history of feminism in the UK developed differently from the USA, so I had to try to understand that.”
While some argue that study abroad can be a distraction from a student’s higher education track or even an opportunity to “play” more than “work,” Cabe’s experience actually helped solidify her goals for the future. “I really learned self-reliance and cross-cultural communication,” she said. “It cemented my desire to go abroad again, so I’m applying for a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship and other TEFL positions. Hopefully, afterwards, I’ll always find a way to keep traveling.”
On the other side of the argument, Mark Salisbury, director of institutional research and assessment at Augustana College and author of Renewing the Promise, Refining the Purpose: Study Abroad in a New Global Century (Wiley, 2012), made some compelling arguments for clarifying an understanding of the limitations of study abroad programs in his latest op-ed piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
“More troubling than the suggestion that study abroad might be an all-encompassing educational elixir is the implicit assumption that studying abroad could, by itself, produce such a wide range of learning outcomes,” he said. “A more honest claim would be that studying abroad might, under specific learning conditions and as a part of a sequence of intentionally designed educational experiences, uniquely contribute to a student’s development toward a set of complex learning outcomes.”
Further, he explained: “The issue isn’t whether study abroad might contribute to learning. It’s a question of what type of learning is a realistic expectation of study abroad and how that can be integrated into a broader educational experience designed to meet specific learning goals.”
Study abroad is not its most effective when one takes a “one size fits all” approach, but rather, as Salisbury argues,”we need to situate these programs fully within the larger educational endeavor so that they can reach their potential as a powerful spark that lights a lifelong flame.” This might look like an intensive summer program in Spain studying Spanish literature as opposed to a semester enrolled in a university in a Spanish-speaking country, for example.
One cannot forget the other issues that come with study abroad, too—the prohibitive cost for many students, as well as degree programs with less-flexible scheduling options, making a semester abroad less than feasible. Still, though, many believe that a student will not regret an opportunity like international education if he or she has the means to do so.
“It develops [a student’s] ability to think critically about subjective, ambiguous issues, be resourceful, take initiative to solve problems and understand complex situations more than students who do not study abroad, because those students who engage in foreign study are forced to be more independent learners both in about out of the classroom every single day,” said Spenlé. “And that, after all, is the whole point of a liberal arts education.”
Cabe echoed Spenlé’s sentiments about her abroad experience, and when asked about her liberal arts education in general said: “Because it’s multidisciplinary, you’re flexible; you learn to operate in different contexts. Especially since people move so much more and switch careers so often now, since there’s so much information out there, flexibility and clear thinking are important. After all, I’m not sure I’d feel as comfortable trying to bounce off to Asia if I hadn’t had such varied experiences.”
Paige Sullivan is a senior at Agnes Scott College double majoring in English/creative writing and psychology. Agnes Scott is home to the Beta of Georgia chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.