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Consumers Study Abroad

International Education Is Not a Commodity

By Thomas V. Millington

Each year more U.S. students are studying abroad: according to the latest figures from the Institute of International Education the increase was 61 percent over the past five years and 12 percent from 1999 to 2000. Most of us in international education are delighted. Not only does an international experience afford students the opportunity to integrate themselves into another culture and thus to become global citizens, it also helps to dispel the notion abroad that Americans are content with being monolingual and monocultural.

As encouraging as the numbers sound and despite the high percentage of success stories—where students have represented their institutions and country with dignity and grace and successfully integrated themselves into the host culture—there are cases where the transition and the experience are not so smooth.

Since consumerism drives our economy and defines our society, it is inevitable that an attitude of consumerism is present in study abroad. After all, students go abroad to live, breath, eat—to “consume”—a culture, the better to understand it. Sometimes, however these consumerist tendencies can produce undesirable results.

The problem may begin before the student has even left home. During the application process some students make the mistaken assumption that their selection to a program is automatic, that the act of sending in a statement of interest essay and references is merely a formality. Statement of interest essays are sometimes so banal that I wonder if the student is really interested in studying abroad, or are they expecting to take a glorified vacation that they can translate into college credit?

Most disconcerting are the reactions of some students when informed that their application has not been approved. Their assumption that acceptance into a study abroad program is an entitlement rather than a privilege may in part be an unintended consequence of the multiplication of study abroad programs. But regardless of what brought it about, this view distorts the true mission of study abroad. Education is a rare privilege that, unfortunately, most students are denied because it’s unaffordable. As study abroad applications and programs become more businesslike, it is inevitable that some students view the experience abroad as a product that can be purchased, not as an educational opportunity for personal and intellectual growth to be earned.

Money Plays Big Role

Sometimes the exchange between a student and or his or her parents and a program officer resembles an encounter between a customer and a customer service clerk debating the deficiencies of a purchased product. In fact, the application for acceptance into a study abroad program is much like the procedure for applying to a college or university and should be so viewed.

The insistence on instant gratification and personal satisfaction sometimes supercedes the desire to study and learn a new culture, to live it and become one with it. There are any number of possible explanations for the “me first” mentality displayed by some students, including upbringing, economic level, personal objectives, and personality. However, money plays a big role in fostering expectations and the assumption of limited accountability for oneself abroad. With the ever-increasing cost of college tuition, many families have come to expect certain services and the inclusion of their progeny in all aspects of the college experience, including study abroad programs.

Attitude Limits Experience

Once students are abroad, they may expect to be accommodated by the host culture rather than submit to it. Obviously, this attitude severely limits the experience of living and learning abroad. If, for example, a program offers only a homestay in the host country, some students will want to arrange to live in a separate apartment or in a dormitory. Such students attempt to make the culture—and the program—adjust to them. This arrogant consumerist attitude is something that some students carry with them to other countries along with their luggage. For them the key word is convenience rather than immersion.

Travel, Not Study Abroad

Travel is an integral and exciting part of study abroad, but it has come to be seen by some as the basis of a study abroad program rather than as a complementary aspect. Students who participate in study abroad programs to travel, with study as a spare-time activity, see the study abroad program as resembling a travel agency that caters to tourists between the ages of 20 and 22. When a resident director at a study abroad site decides to cancel a trip because of a concern for safety, some students will dispute the decision and demand a refund. Their view is, “If I cannot receive the service I paid for, I want my money back.” Clearly, money cannot buy education, friendship, camaraderie, culture. If these students only want to travel, they should go to a travel agency.

Incidentally, the consumerist tendency I’m describing is not limited to Americans. International students applying to spend a semester or year in the U.S. usually cite a particular place where they would like to study. When their preferences cannot be met, some express their displeasure most vociferously. Because many more international students seek to study in the U.S. than vice versa, it is impossible to always match an international student’s preferences. Again, some students expect that because they pay a certain amount of money they are entitled to choose their destination, regardless of logistics. International students who expect—in some cases demand—to be placed at an institution or location of their choice, must be made to understand that study in the U.S. is a privilege, even, or especially, if they are on scholarships.

What Is to Be Done?

Are there ways to minimize these consumerist expectations in study abroad? I suggest a required language proficiency exam similar to the TOEFL for American foreign language students who would like to study abroad. All international students must take the TOEFL to be considered for acceptance to study in the U.S. Why not make this process bilateral? Why not hold U.S. students to the same standards we use to evaluate international students? By having students prepare and study rigorously for this exam before going abroad, there would be a diminished sense of entitlement and an increased sense of earned privilege and pride. This may cause a decrease in numbers of students who study abroad, but those who go would likely be more serious and more willing to adapt to a new culture.

I have highlighted an attitude I have seen displayed only by some students, fortunately not by the great majority, but enough to make it a concern. For students to truly learn and live in another country, they must leave their consumerist expectations behind and learn to accept this unique opportunity.

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