When the 9/11 Commission sought to find out how such an attack could have taken place on the United States, one of the areas they looked at was America’s engagement with the broader world. They reached a shocking conclusion: Americans were largely insular, ignorant of the world at large. The Commission gave the United States a ‘D’ for global literacy.
While there have been efforts to improve since then, more needs to be done at the higher education level, says Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.).
“America’s future leaders need to understand other cultures. They need to be able to speak other languages. American students today are under-performing in both areas,” he told a forum organized by NAFSA: Association of International Educators, at Capitol Hill earlier this month.
Ignorance of the world at an age of global interconnectedness is a “national liability” Durbin said, not only in terms of business but also national security.
According to the 2011 Open Doors report on international student exchange, around 270,000 U.S. students studied abroad in 2009–2010, but that is only 1.3 percent of all college students enrolled at any one time in the United States. In addition, around half of those students go to Europe or English-speaking countries only.
“We should be placing students in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East—regions that will be increasingly important to our future,” Durbin said.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), honorary co-host of the NAFSA event, says the learning curve that travel abroad affords students is critical, taking students “beyond books and what you can Google.”
When students first start to travel they learn about other cultures, about history, and “that the world isn’t really flat,” Mikulski said, but then they go deeper and it gets personal.
“They learn how the world sees us,” she says adding, “That is probably the biggest culture shock—that it is not hurrah, hurrah, hurrah.”
Learning about other democracies and the value of allies, as well as emerging democracies and their struggle to gain basic human rights, is a potent mix for new and older generations, she said.
Durbin summed it up with the old adage, “You don’t appreciate another country till you visit it, you don’t appreciate your home till you leave it.”
Academic Performance Improves
Recent studies show that students who study abroad tend to improve in academic performance upon their return home, gain higher GPAs, and broaden their awareness of different cultures.
According to a 10-year study done across the 35-institution University System of Georgia, gains from study-abroad experiences were most noticeable amongst African-Americans, their graduation rates on four-year courses 31 percent higher than control groups.
African-Americans and ethnic minorities are chronically under-represented in study abroad groups. According to the latest Open Door survey report, white populations accounted for over 80 percent of the total number of students participating in a study-abroad program in 2009–2010.
Sanford Ungar, a co-host of the NAFSA event, is president of Goucher College, the first college in the United States to instigate a compulsory study-abroad component.
Highlighting recent NAFSA study research, Ungar said three-quarters of students interviewed expressed interest in studying overseas, but only 1 percent actually ever made it. How to change that is now the focus.
The challenges however are great. Convincing students, their families, academics, and school boards of the benefits of studying abroad is difficult, say educators.
Dr. Mary Spangler, chancellor of Houston Community College, said most of her students are in two-year degrees, studying part-time with jobs and families to juggle, and accordingly limited resources. Explaining how to fit study abroad into their lives is difficult, she told the NAFSA forum.
“Some have never been on an airplane, some have never even been out of the state,” she said.
Dr. Paula Allen-Meares, chancellor of the University of Illinois, agreed, saying of the 27,500 students at her university, 50 percent are from ethnic and/or racial minority groups.
“Preparing student and families to see how a study abroad is valuable is sometimes a hard sell given the pressure on the families,” she said.
Peter McPherson, president of the Association of the Public and Land-Grant Universities, and former president of Michigan State University, said while they had worked hard at Michigan to cut cost down to 50 percent, and in some cases to cover the cost of travel and accommodation altogether, study abroad was still too expensive.
“Study abroad costs too much … You can’t get this done unless you grind down the cost,” he said.
All agreed, however, that there were ways to share the cost with private and non-government organizations. More data highlighting the academic and career benefits of study abroad would facilitate that support.
Sen. Durbin is hoping to have a bill passed by “this Congress” that will see in place a competitive grant model to “incentivize” greater commitment from academic institutions.
Named after Durbin’s mentor and the former senator of Illinois, the Paul Simon Study Abroad Bill aims to have one million U.S. students studying abroad within the next 10 years.