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The Year of Study Abroad

By Clay Hubbs

The U.S. Senate resolution designating 2006 as the Year of Study Abroad is a strongly worded document on a vitally important subject: increasing the number of U.S. students studying abroad. The following are some highlights.

“Whereas ensuring that the citizens of the United States are globally literate is the responsibility of the educational system in the United States . . .

Whereas a National Geographic global literacy survey found that 87 percent of students in the United States between the ages of 18 and 24 cannot locate Iraq on a world map . . .

Whereas studying abroad exposes students from the United States to valuable global knowledge and cultural understanding and forms an integral part of their education . . .

Whereas according to a 2002 American Council on Education poll, 79 percent of people in the United States agree that students should have a study abroad experience sometime during college, but only 1 percent of students from the United States currently study abroad each year . . .

Whereas study abroad programs not only open doors to foreign language learning, but also empower students to better understand themselves and others through a comparison of cultural values and ways of life . . . the Senate designates 2006 as the ‘Year of Study Abroad’ [and] encourages the people of the United States to support initiatives to promote and expand study abroad opportunities.”

It happens that 2006 also marks the beginning of Transitions Abroad’s third decade of publication. I’ve been asked to review my reasons for founding Transitions Abroad and to discuss the most important changes I’ve seen in international education over the past 30 years.

The Senate resolution points to how little seems to have changed in 30 years: Global literacy continues to decline; and while nearly 80 percent of Americans believe it is important for undergraduates to study abroad, only 1 percent do so.

On the other hand, because the resolution speaks only of undergraduate study abroad, it conceals the most important change of all in international education: the increasing numbers of students (and nonstudent adults) who are going abroad to learn in ways outside formal study programs. These “alternatives” to study abroad include not only internships but also volunteering, often as a conversational English teacher in countries where learning English is seen as the first step toward participating in the new global economy.

Statistics on visits to the Transitions Abroad website, which contains an archive of resources on work, study, living, and educational travel, indicate that undergraduate study abroad has become a gateway to long-term work abroad. Our international careers editor, Jean-Marc Hachey, reports that increasing numbers of former students are going abroad to find employment or to sharpen their skills for work in the globalized U.S.

In Abroad View magazine spring 2004 our work abroad editor, Bill Nolting, reported that while approximately 190,000 students study abroad each year, “More than 30,000 students and recent graduates of U.S. colleges and universities participate each year in work abroad programs, internships, volunteer assignments, teaching positions, and paid summer jobs. Surveys of students who worked abroad have shown they gain the same benefits from the experience as do students who study abroad—only more so—with greater gains in self-development, understanding of the host culture, and, where applicable, knowledge of a foreign language.”

In my 20 years of advising college students on international opportunities the increase in those going overseas for some kind of work experience was remarkable. By the end of the 1990s the number was greater than for study, with results similar to those reported by Nolting.

The other major change in study abroad—apart from the huge variety of options now available—is in participants’ ages and backgrounds. More and more visitors to our website are seniors and high school students.

As for my reasons for starting Transitions Abroad: these had a great deal to do with my situation as a young professor of humanities in a new school, Hampshire College, that had no programs and no resources for study abroad. Having worked and studied for three years in Europe and traveled with my family for another year across North Africa and the Middle East to India, I was aware of how long-term immersion in other cultures helps us to better understand ourselves and others. I saw that my students who returned from an overseas sojourn—after having worked, volunteered, studied, or simply lived for a period of time in a community—were more open to learning after having encountered cultural values and ways of life different from those they had hitherto taken for granted.

This, I believe, is the most important reason for study abroad, just as I believe that study abroad is the most important educational opportunity for undergraduates, an opportunity that too few take advantage of—largely because they are not aware of the rewards and how to go about it. So this is why I started Transitions Abroad. Similar opportunities exist for all ages and interests and backgrounds—many more every year. Our job, as the Senate resolution says, is “to promote and expand them.”

Within a short time after becoming the international studies adviser at my college I was able to establish links with other educational institutions abroad—most importantly through direct exchange programs like the International Student Exchange Program (ISEP). In this one-for-one swap no money changed hands, and thus overseas study was available to the poorest of our students. We even had a single mother who went to Romania to study the life of Gypsies.

Sadly, we had many more students who wanted to come to our campus than I could recruit to go abroad. The Senate’s declaration of the Year of Study Abroad is a timely call for all of us to encourage every student we know to study abroad, to support initiatives to promote and expand overseas learning opportunities of every kind, and to take advantage of those opportunities ourselves!

Dr. Clay A. Hubbs was Transitions Abroad's original founder, editor, and publisher and in 2003 turned over publication of the magazine to Sherry Schwarz.