Over the last decade, scholar-practitioners in the area of global service-learning have done a great deal to embrace a more critical, reflective, and ethical approach to global learning and community engagement. While reading Eric Hartman, Richard C. Kiely, Christopher Boettcher, and Jessica Friedrichs’s (2018) new book Community-Based Global Learning: The Theory and Practice of Ethical Engagement at Home and Abroad, I was struck by how explicitly the authors forefront critiques of service-learning; they use critical perspectives as points of departure for their exploration of how the risks of global service-learning, such as cementing stereotypes and harming vulnerable populations, can be mitigated through careful planning and assessment. Likewise, much of the research highlighted in Marianne A. Larsen’s (2015) edited volume International Service Learning: Engaging Host Communities takes a similar stance, grappling with the ethics of international engagement across race, gender, and class differences in international community settings. While the increased focus on unequal relations of power in global service-learning is timely and necessary, the absence of research on these critical topics in the broader education abroad literature creates a false dichotomy that supposes that community-based global learning is power-laden, while traditional study abroad is power-neutral.

Of course, issues like host community impact, environmental sustainability, and ethical engagement are just as relevant in traditional study abroad programming (no matter the location) as they are in global service-learning, as students are regularly engaging with local people while abroad in both cases. But given that traditional, nonservice-based education abroad still represents the vast majority of programming in the field, international educators should be equally concerned with whether traditional education abroad programs in particular are (or are not) challenging students to think critically about global systems of power and knowledge as opposed to aiding them in replicating inequitable power structures. It is not enough for students to be achieving academic learning outcomes abroad or even striving toward so-called global citizenship or intercultural competency if those efforts don’t result in their ability to critically reflect on their world and their position in it. As global service-learning has done in recent years, the broader field of education abroad should not shy away from investigating critiques of the field and practices, but rather embrace Critical Education Abroad—by actively assessing how global relations of power and privilege are (or could be) created, reified, or dismantled through education abroad programming.

Critical Education Abroad has been described as “a structured way of framing our work with direct reference to the current state of the world” (Reilly and Senders 2009, 242). But more specifically, I see it as a consolidation of ideas that deconstruct assumptions of education abroad and compel international educators to confront the complex historical, cultural, and economic forces that have produced it. For decades now, scholars and practitioners from within education abroad have made calls to look beyond day-to-day operations and toward the systems of power and privilege that define the programs and partnerships that bring students in contact with unfamiliar people and places. However, research on these topics has remained largely on the margins, while research focused on questions that help to satisfy the more commercial and quantifiable aspects of education abroad—like student motivation, satisfaction, or future job outcomes—have taken center stage. It’s natural that at a time when internationalization is under constant attack, practitioners and scholars would focus their efforts on research that helps to highlight what education abroad is getting right; however, in doing so, an important opportunity to improve is being missed.

Scholar-practitioners, specifically in the field of education abroad, have been offering critiques for at least the past 15 years—with early works like Michael Woolf’s (2006) “Come and See the Poor People: The Pursuit of Exotica,” Anthony Ogden’s (2007) oft-cited “View from the Veranda: Understanding Today’s Colonial Student,” and Talya Zemach-Bersin’s (2008) “American Students Abroad Can’t Be ‘Global Citizens’” serving as important examples. Woolf’s (2006, 136) article problematizes using the language of tourism to promote education abroad, specifically arguing that equating the (now standard) term “nontraditional destinations” with “developing countries” yields a troubling blend of an attraction to the exotic coupled with “a quasi-missionary zeal to engage with poverty.” Ogden’s (2007) “View from the Veranda” uses the analogy of historical colonialism to highlight how (then) contemporary U.S. university students exhibited many of the same qualities and desires, while Zemach-Bersin (2008) gives voice to the U.S. student experience of coming to understand oneself as a colonial student on a study abroad program in Asia in the early 2000s.

While these works helped to establish a theoretical basis for Critical Education Abroad, more recently, scholar-practitioners have sought to explore ways to apply Critical Education Abroad approaches to the day-to-day work of developing and promoting education abroad programs. My 2017 article “Curating Cartographies of Knowledge: Reading Institutional Study Abroad Portfolios as Text” takes institutional study abroad portfolios—that is, “the compilation of study abroad programs that a university promotes to its students that take place in particular locations focusing on specific academic disciplines” (1)—as sites of critical analysis. Looking across the study abroad websites of three institutions, I asked what the pairing of particular program disciplines with particular locations says about where various types of knowledge exist. The study found that within the sample of 385 programs, 80 percent of programs on the continent of Africa were focused on service or development whereas there was not a single European program with a service or development focus. This finding, and other themes derived from the data, was intended to sound an alarm on the very real, albeit unintended, ways that education abroad professionals and faculty leaders perpetuate stereotypes through implicitly defining where different types of disciplinary knowledge do and do not live.

Others have focused their critical analyses more squarely on education abroad marketing materials. Following the lead of Kellee Caton and Carla A. Santos (2008), who investigate representations of local people in the promotional photographs of Semester at Sea, Ifeyinwa Onyenekwu, Julianne Marie Angeli, Ransford Pinto, and Ty-Ron Douglas (2017) performed a similar analysis of promotional materials of a teach abroad program in Africa. Among other things, they conclude that the “White Savior Complex” was a primary theme in the images surveyed, which served to further stereotype the continent. They offer a list of critical questions that education abroad professionals can and should consider before using a photo for marketing purposes (a must-read for anyone developing marketing material for education abroad).

Even more recently, Rodger Adkins and Bryan Messerly’s chapter “Toward Decolonizing Education Abroad: Moving Beyond the Self/Other Dichotomy,” in Elizabeth Brewer and Anthony Ogden’s (2019) edited volume, argues that the history of education abroad has codified within participants a neocolonial mindset that privileges the individual and the transactional. The authors carefully lay out what decolonizing education abroad could look like, broken into categories including education abroad planning and recruitment, collaborating with local partners and communities, and employing decolonizing pedagogies. This is done alongside a recognition of the forces that make it difficult to decolonize, but the authors push education abroad practitioners to take seriously the implications of not engaging with the decolonial project.

All of these works, and plenty of other research, are helping to push Critical Education Abroad away from the periphery and toward the forefront of a collective, fieldwide mindset, and leading international education organizations are beginning to help normalize criticality. For example, in March 2019, CAPA: The Global Education Network organized its ninth annual symposium around the theme of “Empire of the Mind? (Post)colonialism and Decolonizing Education Abroad.” Likewise, the Forum on Education Abroad held a critical conversation in November 2019 on “Decolonizing Study Abroad” and has identified topics like environmental sustainability and host community impact as themes of its 2020 annual conference. Further, in 2018 and 2019, NAFSA's Teaching, Learning, and Scholarship Innovation in International Education Research Award honored critical research.

It would seem that perhaps the field of education abroad is poised to start thinking differently about its priorities by embracing Critical Education Abroad. A small body of scholarship exists and is growing steadily. But, taking these issues seriously will mean thinking differently about long-held commitments to measuring progress in terms of enrollment numbers, which can inevitably cause practitioners to appeal to student consumers and embrace enthusiastic but less prepared faculty leaders. Let’s then commit to defining progress in education abroad not in terms of bodies in plane seats, but in terms of the rigor with which institutions work toward ensuring their programs and partnerships contribute to dismantling unequal global relations of power and privilege. Doing any less makes international educators complicit in perpetuating the exact inequities that our programs should be working to help overcome.


Adkins, Roger, and Bryan Messerly. 2019. “Toward Decolonizing Education Abroad: Moving Beyond the Self/Other Dichotomy.” In Education Abroad and the Undergraduate Experience: Critical Perspectives and Approaches to Integration with Student Learning and Development, eds. Elizabeth Brewer and Anthony Ogden. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus Publishing, LLC; NAFSA.

Caton, Kellee, and Carla A. Santos. 2008. “Closing the Hermeneutic Circle? Photographic Encounters with the Other.” Annals of Tourism Research 35, 1:7–26.

Ficarra, Julie. 2017. “Curating Cartographies of Knowledge: Reading Institutional Study Abroad Portfolios as Text.” Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad 29, 1:1–14.

Hartman, Eric., Richard C. Kiely, Christopher Boettcher, and Jessica Friedrichs. 2018. Community-Based Global Learning: The Theory and Practice of Ethical Engagement at Home and Abroad. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Odgen, Anthony. 2007. “The View from the Veranda: Understanding Today’s Colonial Student.” Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad 15:35–55.

Onyenekwu, Ifeyinwa, Julianne Marie Angeli, Ransford Pinto, and Ty-Ron Douglas. 2017. “(Mis)representation Among U.S. Study Abroad Programs Traveling to the African Continent: A Critical Content Analysis of a Teach Abroad Program.” Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad 29, 1:68–84.

Reilly, Doug, and Stefan Senders. 2009. “Becoming the Change We Want to See: Critical Study Abroad for a Tumultuous World.” Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad 18:241–67.

Woolf, Michael. 2006. “Come and See the Poor People: The Pursuit of Exotica.” Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad 13:135–46.

Zemach-Bersin, Talya. 2008. “American Students Abroad Can't Be ‘Global Citizens’” The Chronicle of Higher Education. March 7, 2008.

Julie M. Ficarra, PhD, currently serves as the associate director of study abroad at SUNY Cortland and has previously held positions in international education at the University of South Florida and the SUNY COIL Center. She was an Una Chapman Cox Fellow at the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs and the U.S. Embassy in Swaziland (eSwatini). Ficarra is the 2019 recipient of the NAFSA Teaching, Learning, and Scholarship Knowledge Community’s Innovation in International Education Research Award.