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As seen in the Transitions Abroad Webzine August 2008 Issue
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The Rise of Study Abroad in Asia

U.S. Students Increasingly Seek Cultural Contrasts

When Darrin Burrell went about searching for a study abroad destination, his desire to broaden his musical background through the study of Eastern musical traditions won out over concern about his lack of Chinese language skills.

So the 20-year-old music education major at Greensboro College in North Carolina chose the University of Hong Kong, where he will study in the fall of 2008 through AsiaLearn, a U.S. study abroad program provider.

In doing so, Burrell will become one of an increasing number of U.S. students seeking educational enlightenment in this region of the world so vastly different from the West.

“I’m actually looking for inspiration by going over there,” says Burrell, a junior from Alexandria, Va., who plays flute and plans to teach music after graduation. “I feel like in Greensboro, I’m bound to a certain type of music I’ve been playing for as long as I’ve been in school.”

Shifting Tides

When it comes to U.S. students studying abroad, Europe continues to dominate, accounting for 58 percent of the 223,000 Americans studying overseas in the 2005/2006 academic year, according to the 2007 “Open Doors” report by the Institute of International Education.

But tides are shifting toward less traditional, more diverse destinations, including Asia, which showed a 26 percent increase from the previous year, according to “Open Doors.” China, in particular, helped fuel the increase with a 38 percent jump.

“Students are certainly hearing a lot about China, especially with the 2008 Olympics being in Beijing,” says Martha Johnson, associate director of the Learning Abroad Center at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, “but there’s also just an increasing sense of the importance in Asian economies for our own economy.”

Historically, language barriers and lack of formalized language programs in the United States made Asia a hard place for students to study successfully, Johnson says. But universities in recent years have made great strides in creating programs in Asia that work for students.

Korean universities, as one example, having changed the majority of their coursework to English, Johnson says.

“But they aren’t doing that for our students,” she says. “They’re doing that for their students to be prepared for a global economy.”

When Burrell started researching study abroad opportunities, he was excited to discover music classes, including performance workshop and ensemble classes, taught in English at the University of Hong Kong, where he plans to study Eastern music history, Chinese opera and the Cantonese language.

“I was a little bit surprised at the opportunities that were there,” he says. “I didn’t quite expect them.”

Market Demands

With more English courses available at Asian institutions, American universities and study abroad providers are creating new program opportunities. In circular fashion, students returning from these programs are sharing their experiences with fellow students and, in turn, generating more interest and demand for programs.

AsiaLearn is one example of the momentum.

A sister program of AustraLearn, a leading provider of study abroad programs to Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific, AsiaLearn was formed in 2007 to provide programs for U.S. and Canadian students at partner universities in mainland China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea.

“Our goal with AsiaLearn is to make Asia accessible to all different kinds of students,” says Cynthia Banks, executive director of AustraLearn / AsiaLearn / EuroLearn – Educational Programs of GlobaLinks, based in Westminster, Colo.

“Asian economies are so important globally,” Banks says. “That’s why we think it’s vital our students, as our future leaders, understand and appreciate Asian cultures, languages and practices.”  

AsiaLearn strongly encourages study of local languages, but doesn’t require language proficiency, which makes Asia a possibility for more students. Also, by partnering with Asian universities offering a variety of courses instructed in English, participants in more majors than just language and international studies can fulfill degree requirements.

To help students adjust to the new country, AsiaLearn provides cultural and country information, pre-departure counseling, survival language instruction and an educational, in-country program introduction.

“Our students tell us these services really help to increase their comfort level and make cultural integration – something we believe is at the heart of a truly educational international experience – more possible,” Banks says.

Campus Trends

When Kirsten Eller started working in 2006 as a study abroad advisor for the University of Florida International Center, she was responsible for Asia, Australia and the United Kingdom.

“Since then, Asia’s grown so rapidly,” she says, “they’ve pulled me away from the United Kingdom.”

A decade ago, no Asian countries made the top ten study abroad destinations for U.S. students. Now, China is seventh. Japan is closing in at eleventh.

And while Asia may only account for nine percent of all U.S. study abroad students, it has grown steadily about one percent each year for the past four years.

“I think students are starting to consider Asia as a feasible destination,” Eller says. “Obviously, some didn’t in the past, but we’re seeing more and more that are interested in it, who are looking for something that isn’t Western Europe.”

The University of Florida International Center, which offered only a few programs in Asia several years ago, now has seven sponsored programs in addition to exchange programs running during the academic year, Eller says.

“I think a variety of factors are shaping that,” she says.

They include China’s importance in the global markets and the funding struggles of American universities, many of which are finding their Asian language departments maxed out.

“If we get the students abroad,” Eller says, “we can open up additional spaces here, and we can have more students in the department.”

Another factor is the decreased spending power of the U.S. dollar in Europe.

“When you’re looking at Asia, our dollar hasn’t noticeably weakened against currencies there,” Eller says. “You can do a full summer program in China for about half the cost of such a program in London.”

Asia’s Next Wave

When the Asia-Pacific Association for International Education hosts its third annual conference at the end of March at Waseda University in Tokyo, more than 1,000 educators, senior administrators and professionals from around the world will gather to discuss the next wave in Asia-Pacific higher education.

Despite gradual annual gains in the number of U.S. students studying in Asia, a significant imbalance remains, with the United States receiving more than 240,000 students from Asian countries but sending only 20,000 to the region, according to “Open Doors” figures.

Correction of the imbalance represents a growing study abroad opportunity in both the United States and Asia.

Waseda University plans to increase its annual international student intake from 2,700 to 8,000 in five years, said Shiro Takahashi, administrative director for the university’s Center for International Education.

“According to this plan,” Takahashi says, “we aim to increase acceptance of students from the U.S. and Canada.”

To assist the growth, Waseda is adding new programs in English, a semester enrollment system, and more opportunities for international students to interact with Japanese students through cross-cultural events, language exchange and an orientation week.

“The vast majority of students who have come to Waseda have a keen interest in the Japanese language, culture, Japanese economics and society,” Takahashi says.

Korea University in Seoul hopes to attract more North American students through greater promotion of its offerings, which include 35 percent of all courses taught in English, as well as the Korea University Buddy Assistants program, which pairs domestic and international students for the purpose of cultural integration.

“North American students are often surprised by the high- quality, state-of-the-art student facilities and services,” says D'Arcy Drachenberg, manager of international communications and protocol for the university’s Office of International Affairs.

Korea University also is tailoring more programs to the schedules and needs of its American partner universities and offering targeted scholarships to ensure a balanced student exchange.

It remains a struggle, however, to attract as many students as are sent to the United States, Drachenberg says, in part because Korea University competes with the more top-of-mind China and the more tourist-focused destinations of Europe and Australia.

Still, prospective students should know Korea University has spared no expense in providing the highest quality resources for students, Drachenberg says, “even to the point of offering a certain amount of luxury, such as grand pianos in the student lounges, marble floors, top quality computers and virtual reality mini-theaters.”

Asia Study Abroad Tips

Asia -- home to approximately half of the world’s population -- offers prospective study abroad students many educational opportunities within colorful societies vastly different from the West. 

Under the broadest definition, Asia encompasses more than 30 countries in East Asia and South & Central Asia, with some of the largest study abroad destinations represented by China, Japan, India, Thailand, Korea and Hong Kong.

Asia is a welcoming, exciting and contemporary destination for students from North America. However, proper planning and good preparation can improve the experience immensely.

If you’re thinking of studying abroad in Asia, consider these tips:

Outline your goals and purpose for studying abroad. Are you looking to study language only, language and culture, or a mix of language and cultural studies, as well as classes related to your major?

Consult with your university’s study abroad office about available programs and internal requirements.

Program options may include:

Student Exchange

An agreement between your university and a foreign institution allowing payment of your regular home university tuition fees and direct enrollment in the host university. (Often, best suited for independent students comfortable and knowledgeable about the prospective country and host university.)

Direct Enrollment

Similar to student exchange, but allows you to apply and pay fees directly to the overseas university. (Well suited for independent students comfortable and knowledgeable about the prospective country and host university.)


Developed and run by your university, generally as a short-study program comprised of participants from your university. (Often appeals to students who don’t want to spend a full semester abroad and value the leadership of their own faculty and participation of university peers.)

Program Provider

International education organizations providing a variety of study abroad opportunities, including language/study centers and facilitation of direct enrollment at host universities. (Often best suited for students seeking additional information, assistance and support for their study abroad experience.)

Consider your academic needs in consultation with your home university advisors to ensure your overseas studies are applicable to your degree.

Test your own cultural IQ by mentally preparing for your experience. Set your expectations against your knowledge and identify where you will face challenges.

Seek out other students who have studied in the countries you are considering and ask them for advice.

Research the health risks or recommended/required immunizations or inoculations for your intended country. A good resource is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Familiarize yourself with crime statistics, laws and penalties of the countries you are considering. This will help you avoid becoming a victim of common crimes or committing crimes unknowingly. Laws and regulations may differ significantly from those in the United States, ignorance of laws is often inexcusable, and violations and penalties can be severe. Visit the U.S. Department of State website for more information.

Begin at least a survival language program prior to your departure overseas so you develop a basic vocabulary and are comfortable navigating your local area.

Learn the destination country’s systems and services, whether money and banking, healthcare, transportation and entry and exit requirements. 

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