Study abroad is an important and life-changing experience that broadens people’s horizons and helps them develop skills needed to function in a globalized world. At the end of October I had the chance to attend the Generation Study Abroad Summit hosted by IIE in Washington, DC. The conference brings together industry and thought leaders in study abroad who share the common goal of doubling study abroad in the U.S. by 2020.
This is certainly an ambitious and inspiring goal, but how do we as practitioners help make this happen? How are we defining “study abroad” leading up to 2020? And how do we make sure that growth is fair and our reach is equitable?
Over the course of the conference I sought to explore these questions while attending sessions by various experts and academics. Overall, 5 recommendations stood out that I can identify as important as our industry grows (literally) into the next decade.
1. Technology needs to be leveraged
Technology is now an undeniable part of the exchange space and, like it or not, it’s here to stay. While our increased connectivity means that sojourners may struggle to fully immerse themselves in a new culture, online learning and virtual exchanges can be credited with increasing access to global perspectives. “Study abroad” may no longer necessitate physical border crossings. Groups like Soliya and Global Nomads Group are now able to reach students living in parts of the world where very few programs operate and help learners have meaningful conversations across cultures; creating global connections where it’s (arguably) most important.
At AFS, we’re working to bring our intercultural learning and participant support frameworks more online, such as with our Global Competence Certificate for adult program participants, developed in the context of Sentio, AFS’ subsidiary for 18+ programs. This blended learning program anchors learners with a virtual space where they can continuously reflect through content, quizzes and forum spaces with their peers, as part of on-demand training when they’re experiencing a new culture in person.
Overall, leveraging technology reduces costs for both participants and providers and gives the opportunity for innovations that increase the number of people who can benefit from cross-cultural exchange.
2. Language matters
Research shows that of the variables in study abroad programs, language skill development, along with intentional and guided reflection on intercultural learning, help study abroad participants make the most gains toward an intercultural mindset. Not even the duration of a program is as directly correlated with a student’s intercultural development while abroad.
American Councils for International Education, a commitment partner for the IIE event, trended the hashtag #LanguageMatters to shed light on issues such as the fact that one in every 5 jobs in the U.S. alone currently connect with international trade, making it not only a social imperative to be able to communicate with people abroad but an economic one as well. However, according to their research: “Collectively, only 10 percent of American undergraduates even study abroad to experience another culture. When they do, speaking another language is an exception, not the rule.” This means language based programs, especially those linked to professional development, are increasingly essential for today’s workforce. It is up to us to bring language learning to the forefront of global education and study abroad while helping participants themselves see the tremendous value added.
3. It starts early
Creating a culture of study abroad can start as early as primary school. Students who participated in study abroad activities during primary or secondary school are more likely to study abroad in college and make globally minded career choices. Presenters from the primary and secondary education space shared best practices including:
- Providing opportunities for micro exchange activities, like bringing international students from universities into local high schools, cultural presentations, pen-pal programs, etc.
- Creating shadow classrooms for students at home to track and communicate with those going abroad to share in the cross-cultural learning experiences and extend the impact of study abroad
- Using history and social studies curriculum to connect to themes of global education or service learning (AFS The Volunteers, for example)
- Leveraging International Education Week or other global education opportunities with activities both in the classroom and outside of it
- Including administrators in activities as participants so that they can see the benefits of global education first hand.
While teachers are usually easily convinced of the importance of global initiatives and integrated learning activities around international/intercultural education, they need support in convincing their administrations. Strategic plans at the school board level should have a global component to overcome opposition related to cost, time, safety, motivation, and political climate.
4. It lasts a lifetime
Study abroad is linked with skills that employers need: bilingual/multilingual and communication skills, multi-cultural teamwork, resiliency, comfort with ambiguity, emotional intelligence and leadership, to name a few. As a result, the connection between study abroad and career services at universities is becoming more commonplace.
Nicole Isaac, Head of U.S. Public Policy at LinkedIn talked about the “future of work” during a panel plenary session while in another presentation Kirsten Baker spoke regarding her company Global Professional Services that helps people articulate the skills they learn during intercultural and international experiences and matches them with employers and jobs where those skills are highly valued. In a competitive landscape, employees with critical “soft skills,” cultural competences, and language abilities, like those gained in experiences abroad, have a significant leg up.
5. It’s not JUST about growth
This brings me to the final recommendation. Clearly, if study abroad and global competence is so important, and increasingly connected to employability, we have a responsibility to make sure that all types of people can gain access to opportunities. Doubling study abroad numbers by 2020 means more than marketing, it means strategically looking at funding streams for scholarships, program design to support diverse participation from underserved populations, and structures that allow anyone with the desire and motivation (including those with physical disabilities, financial constraints, or lower GPA’s) the chance to gain a global experience.
For organizations working in study abroad these recommendations present a critical moment for self-reflection. Now, more than ever, intercultural competence is necessary, and empowering young global citizens to engage in open, respectful and supportive connections across cultures is key for our societies to thrive.
Organizations and individuals dedicated to global education need to recognize how we can evolve and continue offering relevant opportunities for more people to develop intercultural competence. AFS, for one, is looking to share our experience and resources to create partnerships that advance study abroad as well as increase our reach to schools, host families, and thousands of volunteers world-wide.