Practice Area Column
Education Abroad

Living and Learning Sustainability in Education Abroad

How education abroad offices can limit the environmental impacts of study abroad programs on their host communities.
Part of many institutions' sustainability efforts include reducing the impact of study abroad programs on host communities. Photo: Cloris Ying/Unsplash

As awareness of climate justice grows, institutions are educating students—and themselves—on how to mitigate the impacts of study abroad programs on host communities.

While study abroad has long been a staple of higher education’s offerings, cognizance of the environmental impact that education abroad can have on host communities has only grown more recently. Many institutions have begun including sustainability among their values, and they are seeking ways to mitigate the inevitable effect that travel abroad has.

In doing so, they have willing allies among students.

“Many students are well aware of the issues of climate change and environmental sustainability, and some may even be experiencing anxiety of a sense of guilt about how their study abroad experience might be contributing to the problem,” says Rebecca Johnson, a study abroad adviser and international programs manager with the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences’ study abroad team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“Equipping them with tangible ways that they can limit the negative impacts of their abroad experiences and maximize the positive impacts empowers students to make informed decisions that can benefit not only them as individuals, but also their host communities and the planet.”

Start with Students

Study abroad programs are educational experiences and are designed as such, but students sometimes can’t help thinking like tourists, especially if it’s their first time out of the country. Educating students in the basics of sustainable behavior is an important first step in study abroad orientation around this topic.

Perhaps the easiest behaviors to avoid are typical tourist excesses. “Do not purchase souvenirs or food products made from exotic or endangered animals (e.g., turtle shells, ivory, animal skins, bones, feathers, or bushmeats),” says Johnson. “Paying for ‘animal experiences’ like swimming with dolphins or taking photos with tigers or lions encourages people to capture them for money, harming the animals and their species.”

“Many students are well aware of the issues of climate change and environmental sustainability, and some may even be experiencing anxiety of a sense of guilt about how their study abroad experience might be contributing to the problem.” —Rebecca Johnson

But reducing harmful impact on host communities doesn’t stop there. It requires that students have a deeper understanding of the environments in which they will be living.

“Many communities do not have easy or affordable access to electricity or water, so being careful not to abuse those limited resources is an important way to respect one’s host community and gain a more authentic experience of local life,” notes Johnson. A student’s hot, 20-minute shower may not be respectful or sustainable for a host family.

Students should also understand that their host communities are not just jumping-off points for other travel adventures.

“Students going abroad want to travel everywhere,” says Lotte Buiting, associate director for Off Campus Study at Swarthmore College. “It’s the idea that you can ‘do’ Europe, for example.”

While it’s inevitable that students want to travel, Buiting says that there are ways to do it more responsibly.

“We talk about slow travel,” she says. “Several programs we work with encourage students to stay in their host city or at least their host country and use trains and buses, not planes.” Buiting says that such efforts to limit travel not only have an environmental benefit, but also an educational one, allowing students to experience the host community in which they are living more deeply.

“We may pay a bit more to reduce the carbon footprint. It’s a little bit of putting our money where our mouth is.” —Patricia Martin

Indeed, travel itself is the worst offender. “The biggest environmental impact of study abroad is likely to be the flight to the destination,” says Roman Yavich, founder of Learn from Travel, which offers sustainable faculty-led study abroad programs.

To that end, Swarthmore has developed an innovative program that allows students to see the carbon footprint of their travel. Students book their flights through a travel agency portal that calculates the carbon emissions of flights. (Because Swarthmore charges a comprehensive fee for tuition, room, and board, it also picks up the tab for study abroad travel.)

“We may pay a bit more to reduce the carbon footprint,” says Patricia Martin, director of Off Campus Study at Swarthmore. “It’s a little bit of putting our money where our mouth is. If we’re educating students about making these decisions, we have to educate ourselves.”

What EA Offices Can Do

As fundamental as it is to educate students in efforts to lessen the environmental impact of study abroad on host communities, the larger responsibility falls upon the education abroad office itself. How it integrates its own commitment to sustainability throughout its programmatic work is critical to ensuring meaningful change and success.

In NAFSA’s recent Trends & Insights paper, “Environmental Sustainability and Internationalization: Challenges and Opportunities,” authors Karen McBride and Daniel Ponce-Taylor discuss how international educators can embrace their unique position to holistically address the climate crisis and meet strategic internationalization goals.

Additionally, the Forum on Education Abroad has published guidelines that connect the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) to best practices for study abroad. The resulting document provides a roadmap for study abroad offices to integrate SDGs into programs.

To underscore how integral environmental justice is to its mission, UW-Madison’s study abroad office has published a Commitment to Sustainability. “[It] asks that we as practitioners be more sustainable in our work and that we model for students sustainable practices and ethics,” says Matt Geisler, the university’s associate director for new programs and enrollment with international academic programs.

Geisler says that study abroad offices should also ask partners about their own sustainability goals. Not only does this help the offices to select partners with similar commitments to sustainability, it also sends a message more broadly about the direction that study abroad as a whole is taking.

“Inquiring about partners’ sustainability goals and practices further embeds sustainability into the overall ethics and practices of the study abroad profession,” he says.

Digging Deeper

Some institutions take their due diligence with partners a step further. Daniel Greenberg, CEO of Custom Academic Programs in Ecovillages (CAPE), has written that institutions should ask existing and potential partners specific questions about sustainability, including

  • Are goods and materials locally sourced and environmentally friendly?
  • Does the program purchase fair-trade products when available?
  • Is food organic and locally grown?
  • Are accommodations LEED- or Green Key-certified?
  • Does the program work with vendors that are socially, environmentally, and economically responsible?

Greenberg says that institutions are well positioned to move partners toward more sustainable approaches.

“As a study abroad ‘customer,’ you have more power than you might realize,” he says. “Use your leverage while shopping around, and don’t be surprised if your prodding leads to some very positive impacts, not only for you, but for future students (and the planet) as well!”

Still, vetting programs isn’t an easy task. Even programs that appear to be environmentally friendly may not be quite as sustainable as they seem, upon deeper inspection. Yavich points out that service programs, such as planting trees or working in wildlife rehab centers, have proven popular as conservation efforts but present a different set of challenges.

“It’s not just about the travel, it’s about why they are doing this,” she says. “We want them to learn about the critical issues facing our society and our planet. One of those issues is climate justice and sustainability.” —Patricia Martin

“Do the trees survive after they are planted by students?” he asks. “Are the animals treated well in the rehab center? Are these projects ongoing or just for visiting students? Are student volunteers taking jobs away from locals? Study abroad administrators and program coordinators have to conduct site visits, meet with providers in person, and ask the hard questions.”

But the hard work is worth it, says Johnson. “Building a holistic sustainability lens or component into study abroad programs is essential to building environmental awareness among students and to giving them experiences and knowledge that will continue to impact their decisions in life long after they’ve returned home,” she says.  

Ultimately, says Martin, tying environmental awareness into study abroad harkens back to the original purpose behind the programs: education. “It’s not just about the travel, it’s about why they are doing this,” she says. “We want them to learn about the critical issues facing our society and our planet. One of those issues is climate justice and sustainability.”  •

About International Educator

International Educator is NAFSA’s flagship publication and has been published continually since 1990. As a record of the association and the field of international education, IE includes articles on a variety of topics, trends, and issues facing NAFSA members and their work. 

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NAFSA: Association of International Educators is the world's largest nonprofit association dedicated to international education and exchange. NAFSA serves the needs of more than 10,000 members and international educators worldwide at more than 3,500 institutions, in over 150 countries.

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