Leadership Needed to Make Study Abroad Work for More Students

February 28, 2011

By Janice Mulholland

Recently, an Associated Press article that tells the story of one African-American student’s experience with study abroad caught my eye.  The student, Sade Adeyina, almost didn’t pursue an opportunity to study abroad because she didn’t think she could afford it, but has since returned from a program in Italy and has become a strong advocate for study abroad. The article also explores the issue of diversity in U.S. study abroad at a time when attention to the need for all students to have access to a quality global education is growing nationally.

Most of the discussion of diversity issues in the article isn’t new – in fact NAFSAns have been working hard for years to identify and address barriers to study abroad and help make the profile of study abroad participation better match the profile of U.S. higher education.  The article mentions that there are many barriers to study abroad for minority students, including: “lack of funds, fear of racism, worries about delayed graduation, and few role models — either family or faculty — who have traveled abroad.” It also makes a case for better marketing to minority students to portray study abroad as a means toward personal and professional development instead of as a cultural experience, which I know is an area many institutions are working to improve.

While all of these points are true and more work probably needs to be done in each area, one element the article doesn’t mention is the need for more leadership.  Signals from government have been encouraging. First Lady Michelle Obama has been outspoken in her support for study abroad, saying that it “isn’t just an important part of a well-rounded educational experience… it’s also becoming increasingly important for success in the modern global economy,” and calling for all students to step out of their comfort zones and go abroad.  Her voice is extremely important and impactful. The Department of State has included study abroad as part of its broader messaging on public diplomacy and foreign policy strategy, but the support must not stop there.  The Department of Education also has a role to play in supporting the notion that study abroad should be an integral component of a world-class education.  Beyond Title VI programs, the Department of Education historically hasn’t been very involved in international education – I think that is beginning to change.

The article also mentions federal initiatives supporting diversity in study abroad, including the Gilman Program and the proposed Simon Act.  The article highlights the success of the Gilman Program in ensuring diversity in its scholarships. While that’s true, one important point of context is left out: the Gilman program is small and has a limited capacity to attract applicants beyond those students who are already taking the initiative to seek out opportunities through their campus international office.  The program envisioned by the Simon Act takes a different approach. Through the creation of a competitive grant program, institutions would be invited to demonstrate how they would go about promoting and sustaining a culture across the entire campus in which study abroad is considered an important part of a college education. Institutions would have to consider such issues as faculty engagement, curriculum integration, and cost containment, as well as create innovative approaches to securing support from campus leadership in order to access funds for their students through the program. In taking this approach, the program aims to broaden opportunities for students and institutions, inspire momentum, and bring about change to significantly increase and diversify study abroad.

Leadership at the national level to encourage study abroad participation is - and will continue to be - critical, but for any national initiative to be successful in increasing and diversifying study abroad, stronger campus leadership is also needed.  While there are many individual barriers students face in studying abroad, such as those mentioned above, there are also barriers institutions sometimes unknowingly put in place. Federal initiatives can create opportunity and inspire momentum, but the creativity and innovation that will cause study abroad to be seen as an integral part of a college education is going to have to come from within higher education.

This is a challenging task, especially during a time when everyone is strapped for cash.  States are cutting back spending, there is a national debate about what programs are and aren’t appropriate for the federal government to invest in, and students and their families continue to feel the impact of the recession.  We could either climb into a hole, try to maintain status quo, or really challenge ourselves to be creative with the limited resources at our disposal.  I pick the latter, and I’m going to guess that many of you have as well.

I know that there are more students like Sade Adeyina out there and more success stories.  What kind of creative measures have you taken on campus to increase and diversify study abroad in these challenging times?  Tell us about your successes, however major or minor.


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