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The Impact of Study Abroad

Educational Travel as a Model for Responsible Tourism

Learning from locals in Cuba.
One of many forms of respectful experiential learning while visiting with locals is a model for responsible travel, in this case in Cuba.

My semester abroad experience in a small village on the island of Sumatra prompted me to begin research on the impacts of tourism in host communities. My classmates and I spent four of the most amazing, eye-opening months of our lives living, working, and studying alongside the Minangkabau people of Western Sumatra. While we benefitted greatly from the exchange, I wondered about the village after we left. Did the community also gain from the experience?

Tourism has been promoted as a possible answer to environmental, economic, and cultural losses. But tourism has also been shown to create its own profound problems. Educational travel, in the form of study abroad programs, appears to offer a model for responsible tourism, tourism that has the potential to avoid the problems inherent in traditional or “mass” tourism by providing real benefits to the hosts as well as to the participants in the programs.

Negative Effects of Tourism

Tourism, generally defined as temporary stays of people traveling primarily for leisure or recreational purposes, is often said to hold benefits for the destination communities — as an economic boost or even for environmental conservation. All too often, no such positive effects occur. Morever, both the local communities and the visitors are often disappointed with the outcome. For the visitors, the search for authenticity produces an unattainable paradox: As soon as tourists enter the scene the local people have to put on a show to satisfy tourists’ expectations; the tourists are then disappointed by the staged version of culture produced for them.

As Transitions Abroad contributing editor Deborah McLaren points out in her classic book, Rethinking Tourism and Ecotravel: The Paving of Paradise and What You Can Do to Stop It, the unequal power relations between tourists and locals emerge in both economic exchanges and the exchange of knowledge. Because tourists are paying customers, they have “rights” in the host community. One result of this unequal power dynamic is that the tourists never get to know the locals in any meaningful manner; likewise, the locals’ view of the tourists is a very superficial one. One problem that stems from this lack of “real” contact between hosts and guests is the stereotyping and idealizing of cultures.

Benefits of Alternative Tourism

Alternative tourism can be characterized as a form of tourism consistent with natural, social, and community values which allow both hosts and guests to enjoy positive and worthwhile interaction and shared experiences. This implies contact between local communities and tourists in an equal exchange, with both sides benefitting. The interactions between visitors and locals should help develop a respect for other cultures, rather than romanticizing them. Student travelers can be seen as at least potentially responsible travelers because they are in the country for a longer period of time than tourists, either to attend university with host country nationals or to live with a family or both. In all of their interactions — with other students, professors, family members, and members of the community — the study abroad participants have the time and opportunity to develop meaningful relationships and to learn about the culture of the other.

Study Abroad as Alternative Tourism

Study abroad programs can be categorized into two broad types. The first is traditional study abroad, often with a language focus, in which the students spend a year or a semester at a foreign university living in a dorm or apartment or sometimes with a host family. The second type is experiential, field-based study abroad in which the emphasis is on non-classroom-based learning. Most such programs have a substantial homestay period. Many experiential programs have a focus on social justice. Study topics include: gender and development, the environment, social change and the arts, multicultural societies, and Indigenous studies.

Other examples of experiential programs include the School for International Training College Semester Abroad’s “Nicaragua: Revolution, Transformation and Development.” The semester is spent studying the history and politics of both Nicaragua and Cuba, economics and development, culture and identity, and social movements and civil society. The program consists of a seven-week homestay in Managua, a week-long visit to a rural village, and a field trip to Cuba. The Center for Global Education offers, as one example of their many such programs, an experiential semester program called “Multicultural Societies in Transition: Southern African Perspectives” based in Windhoek, Namibia with homestays with rural and urban Namibian families, regional travel in Namibia, and a two-week seminar in South Africa. Courses are offered in political and social change, the development process, history, and religion. These and programs like them focus on more than just learning a language; they attempt to foster a deepened understanding of a country and its people that goes far beyond what a tourist or even a student on a traditional program would ever learn.

Impacts of Educational Travel

To determine whether study abroad really constitutes a form of alternative tourism, I looked for studies on the impacts of educational travel. Not surprisingly, there is little data: the study abroad literature looks mostly at the effects on the students, while the anthropology of tourism literature emphasizes effects on the hosts.

Students who study abroad report that the programs helped them make career and life choices, attain skills in intercultural communication, improve problem solving skills and field research techniques, and gain respect for cultural differences. Students are introduced to new ways of seeing and thinking which challenge old assumptions and beliefs. Third World travel especially leads to a greater understanding of self and a confronting of U.S. values concerning consumerism, individualism, and race-based identity. Students return with a greater global-mindedness. In general, the most commonly observed impacts on students who studied abroad are better foreign language proficiency, more knowledge about the culture, politics, and society of the host country, and altered stereotypes.

The results are not so clear, however, when one takes into account the self-selection of students. Many students who go abroad, as compared to ones who stay at home, may be inclined to a broader world view. One study showed no increase in international understanding because the students who went were already previously concerned about international issues.

An unpublished study by Skye Stephenson for the CIEE on its semester abroad program in Santiago, Chile includes host families. The main focus of the study was to examine all parties involved with the exchange program, not only the students but the professors and host families as well. “The premise of this study is that not only exchange students but members of the host society who come into contact with them are impacted by the cross-cultural experience,” Stephenson writes. By surveying the students upon arrival and again at departure the author found that it was difficult for the students to adjust to cultural and value differences and that their experience was more stressful than anticipated. The strongest impact on the host families was a “reaffirming [of] their own sense of being Chilean and in gaining a deeper appreciation of their own culture.”

Planning and Preparation

The limited studies available point to the conclusion that study abroad can be a form of responsible travel when there is an equal exchange between students and hosts. This can happen only when an effort is made on the part of program organizers and students to understand the deeper issues in the cross-cultural experience. Design, preparation, curriculum, orientation, and a homestay period are key elements in a program that can make for a positive experience for all.

If students live in an apartment or dorm with other Americans, their contact with the local people is limited. Economic or social class is also an issue: If privileged U.S. students go to a foreign university with privileged foreign students, as Chip Peterson points out in a column, they may never really experience the broad cultural differences of their new environment.

SHOSHANNA SUMKA is a past participant in the School for International Training’s semester in Sumatra, Indonesia and a former leader for the Experiment in International Living’s summer program in Ecuador.

Related Topics
Study Abroad Advisor
Responsible Travel

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