Musings on Generation Study Abroad Risk & Education Abroad
Product Evangelist, Terra Dotta
Last month, approximately 700 supporters of international education gathered in Washington, DC, for the second IIE Summit on Generation Study Abroad (GSA). With over 740 Commitment Partners from the United States and abroad, there may be few unfamiliar with the effort, but just in case, visit IIE’s website to learn more about the program. Briefly stated, GSA “aims to double the number of American students who study abroad by the end of the decade, and diversify the study abroad population.” (IIE press release, October 1, 2015) At last month’s Summit, attendees were encouraged to think outside the box, to challenge assumptions, be creative and look to the future. There was much to take in and ruminate over; enough for plenty of lunchtime chats, or a monthly article. Here are some of my take-aways.
What Do We Mean By "Study Abroad"?
Study abroad was simpler when it referred to students in classrooms. Now programs offer service learning, volunteer, research and other non-credit bearing opportunities. So while “study abroad” is still the more common term, “education abroad” is being used with greater frequency in an attempt to recognize that international growth experiences can involve more than just studying. But what makes education abroad educational? Is it the program content or the desired program outcomes? And who decides?
Last March, IIE published a pilot study, The World is the New Classroom: Non-Credit Education Abroad to increase understanding of this education abroad segment. This is a conversation that must continue with a goal of reaching some consensus within the profession on definitions and data collection. The world has opened a broader range of opportunities to students; we must keep up.
Who Is Eligible To Study Abroad?
While Generation Study Abroad strives to dramatically increase the numbers of students availing themselves of international opportunities, we know that there still exist barriers to students’ participation. Some of these are barriers that students place upon themselves such as believing education abroad can’t be an option. Other barriers may be related to finances or family situations. Updated information disseminated by IIE at the Summit indicates that progress is being made at diversifying study abroad populations as well as increasing opportunities for students with high financial need.
But what about barriers being placed on students by their home institutions? Paul Watson, Executive Director of AIFS Study Abroad, in his remarks before the opening plenary, challenged attendees to consider two institutional policies that often hinder students: GPA and credit transfer. Are institutional GPA “cut-offs” appropriate to all international opportunities? Can there not be programs suitable for the student with a lower GPA wherein the student can flourish both personally and academically?
Credit transfer and curricular requirements still pose barriers to many students who might otherwise pursue education abroad. Great strides have been made in the STEM fields through curricular integration and course matching with overseas partners, a likely factor in the growth of STEM students to more than 20% of study abroad students. However, in other instances credit transfer may be used to unnecessarily limit students’ options and protect programs or departments. Interestingly, there was a dearth of Summit sessions related to innovation in curriculum design and credit transfer. One notable exception was a session on “Making Study Abroad Accessible to Education Majors,” focusing on international student teaching opportunities. But one wonders if the lack of international opportunities within education departments later hinders internationalization efforts at the secondary level.
One Summit session description began with “One of the single greatest predictors of whether a student will study abroad in college is prior international experience, according to a 2013 study published in the Journal of Teaching in International Business.” Yet the synergy between higher education international educators and those at the secondary level seems to ebb and flow over the years. Currently, we are fortunate in that there appears to be a renewed appreciation for the necessity of considering students’ interests in study abroad long before they reach the college campus.
Learning about education abroad opportunities during the secondary years helps to establish a mindset of possibility. All teachers, but especially language teachers and college counselors, can begin to help students see the benefit of language acquisition and/or study abroad by introducing elements of the beneficial outcomes both in relation to academic progress and career opportunities.
Thousands of high school students make overseas trips each year with their faculty. Can high schools and universities collaborate to make these programs more impactful and relevant to the students’ later education through co-leadership or advanced credit? How can we strengthen the connection between the prior international experience and the likelihood of studying abroad? Students will begin to make a connection between international experiences before and during college if their secondary and college faculties make concerted efforts at cooperation.
Impact On Careers
There was a day when students returned from a period of study abroad learning about art and culture, and jumped right back into their classes, being left to process their experiences on their own. Then our students moved toward a focus on degree-plan-relevant coursework, and we found that programming for reverse culture shock had a positive impact on students’ overall experiences. So the natural progression was to consider the impact of study abroad on students’ careers. Considerable literature, led by the work of Martin Tillman of Global Career Compass and others, now exists to aid students with articulating the outcomes of their overseas experience in their career searches.
Will there be a next step in this progression? As the number of study abroad alumni grows, will those alumni find themselves competing against other study abroad returnees for the same positions? If so, the nuances of articulation may take on additional significance as may the choices students make in selecting their overseas experiences. Speakers in one Summit session, “GSA Voices:…Generation Z and Millennial Incentives for Study Abroad” provided insights into what attracts the new generation: high-impact learning opportunities, social entrepreneurial programs, reflective exercises to aid in articulating transferable skills, and professionally successful study abroad alumni. Global citizenship is important; however, career development is vital. Rather than simply responding to these changes, our field is challenged to remain on the leading edge, keeping education abroad relevant to each new generation.
Marketing Education Abroad
We have all become marketers, and the Summit reflected this reality with several sessions on branding and marketing. Today’s students have so many other options for receiving information about overseas experiences than the posters and catalogs in our study abroad offices. As one session description put it, “Generation Study Abroad will require a shift to a consumer-driven marketing strategy focused on discovering new markets, curriculum integration, and sending the right messages to the right audiences.” (italics added)
One particular session struck a cautionary note on targeting underrepresented student groups merely for the sake of diversifying education abroad. Yes, diversification is important, but only insofar that the experience is actually beneficial to those students, and not to improve institutional statistics. Care must be exercised to create messages that respect the needs and motivations of those students.
Perhaps the marketing challenge for international educators is to accept that we need not go it alone. This topic provides an ideal opportunity to engage internal and external colleagues and partners who have greater experience in this area than we. They may be faculty colleagues (who may have students seeking experience), trained university administrators, or external organizations. Whether how to best utilize social media, craft the right message or establish a brand identity, there are professionals able to provide guidance.
Data, Data, Data
Early hushed water-cooler talk about doubling the number of education abroad students spoke of concerns regarding quality versus quantity. Fortunately, the Summit recognized this challenge, establishing one of the conference themes as “Making the Case for Study Abroad: Using Data to Promote Study Abroad and Change Perceptions.” Apparently, the U.S. is not alone in this concern. Representatives from Australia and the U.K. presented on their respective country’s similar efforts to both increase numbers and measure the outcomes.
Clearly our field has moved well beyond the anecdotal stories of how study abroad “changed my life.” Arguing the benefit of an international experience now requires “better evaluation methodologies to measure the quality of a study abroad experience, with respect to it meeting specific learning objectives defined by each student’s degree program and curriculum” as the Australian session described. Or as another session description put it, “[we] must not only collect the data, but link the findings to existing areas of concern.” In times of scarce resources, data and their findings provide the arguments to support our calls for the opportunity of an international experience in every student’s education.
Generation Study Abroad is not about numbers only. Yes, the goal is to double the numbers; however, that is not the complete story. Generation Study Abroad is about creating a culture; a culture in which an international experience is available to all students, in all curricula, from all backgrounds and with the necessary financial support to make it happen. The goal is lofty, and may not be achieved. But what can be achieved is a greater awareness of international education and its long-term benefits for the individual and the country, driven by data, innovation, flexibility and collaboration. Over 740 partners and thousands of individuals have signed on to the challenge or pledged their efforts. Each can be a spokesperson and a leader in the effort. As James Pellow, President and CEO of CIEE, put it, “If we have leaders on board, we can move mountains.”