Study Abroad and Global Education in the Spotlight on Capitol Hill

November 18, 2011

By Ursula Oaks

NAFSA – Goucher College Event “A Global Education: No Longer Optional” Draws U.S. Senators, Higher Education Leaders to Discuss Legislation, Challenges, and Innovative Solutions

Senator Barbara Mikulski minced no words in her assessment of new members of Congress who boast that they don’t have a passport. “How,” she asked, “can you do your job in government without an international education?”

Speaking before congressional staffers, higher education leaders, and international educators at the U.S. Capitol Wednesday morning, Sen. Mikulski urged the audience and the U.S. Congress to make sure students get an education that is global in scope and to “fight for the resources” to make study abroad possible for many more Americans. “International education is inspirational education,” she said, an experience without parallel that teaches students critical lessons about the world and about themselves and their own country.

Senator Richard Durbin also spoke passionately about study abroad at the event, which was sponsored by NAFSA: Association of International Educators and Goucher College. He called study abroad a “courageous” thing to do and said that in today’s environment of global economic competition and national security challenges, “one of the best possible investments [we can make] is to send Americans to study abroad.” Sen. Durbin has twice introduced the Simon Study Abroad Act in previous sessions of Congress and said that he would soon introduce it again. He thanked NAFSA for its strong and vocal support of the legislation, which was inspired by the work of the late Senator Paul Simon. Sen. Durbin called the Senator from Illinois, whose son Martin was in the audience, “one of my political heroes” and quoted him as saying: “How can America be a force for progress in a world we do not even know?” Sen. Durbin concluded his remarks with a mention of the DREAM Act, which NAFSA and its grassroots community has also strongly supported, saying that it “sickens and saddens” him that immigration reform has become such a volatile and controversial issue. Inspired by the courage of the many undocumented students he has met over the years, he said he is resolved to make the DREAM Act a reality.

A panel discussion among higher education leaders – Dr. Paula Allen-Meares, chancellor of the University of Illinois at Chicago; M. Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) and former president of Michigan State University; and Dr. Mary S. Spangler, chancellor of Houston Community College – followed the Senators’ remarks. Goucher College President Sandy Ungar, whose leadership in making study abroad a requirement of graduation at his institution has been much cited, kicked off the conversation by noting that while 80 percent of U.S. students entering college say they intend to study abroad, only about 1 percent do so at any given time. “How can we help the 80 percent achieve their goal?” he asked the panel.

A wide-ranging conversation followed that highlighted the diversity of both U.S. higher education and the American college student population. From the community college perspective, Dr. Spangler pointed out, the challenges are very concrete and personal. Many students at her institution of 75,000 attend part-time, support families, and struggle with limited resources. Study abroad is, she said, quite literally “a foreign thought” to them. Innovative programs, short-term options, and creative partnerships are all part of the mix in holding down costs and widening access. Dr. Allen-Meares noted another factor that all of the panelists agreed was significant: the need to invest a considerable amount of time in talking with students and parents about why study abroad is important. All of the panelists also agreed that faculty engagement and support was crucial to scaling up study abroad and integrating it fully into the college experience.

Resources came up repeatedly throughout the conversation, and along with that, the importance of institutional buy-in. The key, Mr. McPherson posited, is demonstrating academic rigor and concrete outcomes – without those, he said, leadership support isn’t likely to materialize. McPherson said more data are needed that demonstrate the benefits of study abroad in terms of academic success and future employment prospects. He described the work of the Lincoln Study Abroad Commission, which he chaired, as being focused on this question of how to make more study abroad possible in a reality of scarce resources:  the commission recommended a unique model that would leverage a relatively modest amount of federal funding to drive significant changes at the institutional level in order to widen access to study abroad. The Commission set the goal of a four-fold increase in study abroad in 10 years’ time, to bring the number of Americans studying abroad to one million per year.

NAFSA CEO and Executive Director Marlene M. Johnson also joined the conversation, noting that “political leadership is thin” at the federal and state level but that “despite these challenging times, we have to stand up and be very clear about our values and about the benefits of international education.”

For much more about this event, including handouts, individual speaker remarks, photos, and a slide show of study abroad in action, visit our event page at www.nafsa.org/GlobalEducationForum.


SHARE THIS POST