5 things to know about study abroad today

by Katharine Sanders, Manager of Membership and Programs at Sentio, Global Education Network, AFS’s subsidiary offering global education opportunities to young adults


In this article you will learn:

  • How technology can be leveraged in study abroad programs,
  • The importance of learning and mastering a new language for study abroad participants,
  • Why it is important to create a passion for study abroad as early as primary school,
  • How study abroad is linked with skills that employers look for,
  • Why it is crucial to provide equal access opportunities to study abroad programs.

Although I have spent several years working at AFS Intercultural Programs, a leading global education and study abroad organization, attending the Generation Study Abroad Summit was a great opportunity to learn more about the field. This past October, the Generation Study Abroad Summit was hosted by the International Institute for Education (IIE), a non-profit organization specialized in international education and training. The conference took place in Washington, DC and convened industry and thought leaders in study abroad who share the common goal of doubling study abroad in the U.S. by 2020.

This is certainly an ambitious and inspiring goal, but how do we as practitioners help make this happen? How are we defining “study abroad” leading up to 2020? And how do we make sure that growth is fair and our reach is equitable?

Over the course of the conference I learned a great deal. In the end, five recommendations stood out that I believe will influence our industry over the next decade:

IIE Generation Study Abroad Summit

1. Technology must be leveraged

Technology is now an undeniable part of the student exchange space and, like it or not, it’s here to stay. While our increased connectivity means that exchange program participants may struggle to fully immerse themselves in a new culture, online learning and virtual exchanges can be credited with increasing access to global perspectives. “Study abroad” may no longer necessitate physical border crossings. Groups like Soliya and Global Nomads Group are now able to reach students living in parts of the world where very few programs operate and help learners have meaningful conversations across cultures; creating global connections where it’s (arguably) most important.

At AFS, we’re working to bring our intercultural learning and participant support frameworks more online, such as with our Global Competence Certificate for adult program participants, developed in the context of Sentio, AFS’ subsidiary for adult programs. This blended learning program anchors study abroad and other international education and volunteer programs with a virtual space where they can continuously reflect through content, quizzes and forum spaces with their peers, as part of on-demand training when they’re experiencing a new culture in person.

Overall, leveraging technology reduces costs for both participants and providers and gives the opportunity for innovations that increase the number of people who can benefit from cross-cultural exchange.

2. Language learning matters

Research shows that learning and mastering a new language, combined with intentional and guided reflection on intercultural learning, help study abroad participants make the most gains in increasing their intercultural understanding and competency. Even the length of the program is not as important as these two factors when assessing a student’s intercultural development while abroad.

This point was illustrated by tweets from the American Councils for International Education (ACIE), (see #LanguageMatters) that shed light on issues such as the fact that one in every 5 jobs in the U.S. alone currently connects with international trade. This makes mastering a new language not only a social imperative to be able to communicate with people abroad, but an economic one as well. However, according to ACIE research: “Collectively, only 10% of American undergraduates even study abroad to experience another culture. When they do, speaking another language is an exception, not the rule.” This means that language based programs, especially those linked to professional development, are increasingly essential for today’s workforce — a core reason why many education focused exchange programs facilitate and stress the importance of learning other languages.

3. Start early

Creating a passion for study abroad can start as early as primary school. Students who participated in activities that encouraged living and learning in another country during primary or secondary school are more likely to study abroad in college and make globally minded career choices. Presenters at the Summit from the primary and secondary education space shared best practices on how to do this:

  • Provide opportunities for micro exchange activities, like bringing international students from universities into local high schools, cultural presentations and pen-pal programs.
  • Create shadow classrooms for students at home to track and communicate with those going abroad to share in the cross-cultural learning experiences and extend the impact of study abroad.
  • Use history and social studies curriculum to connect to themes of global education or service learning (AFS The Volunteers, for example).
  • Leverage International Education Week or other global education opportunities with activities both in the classroom and outside of it.
  • Include administrators in activities as participants so that they can see the benefits of global education first hand.

Although it may be relatively easy to help teachers understand the the importance of global initiatives and integrated learning activities around intercultural education, they need support in convincing their administrations to provide resources for these efforts. Administration and school board support is necessary to build global education into strategic plans for school districts. These strategies need a clear global component that can be used to overcome opposition related to cost, time, safety, motivation, and political climate.

4. Emphasize the lifetime benefits

Study abroad is linked with skills that employers need: bilingual or multilingual and communication skills, multi-cultural teamwork, resilience, comfort with ambiguity, emotional intelligence and leadership, to name a few. As a result, the connection between study abroad and career services at universities is becoming more commonplace. In a competitive landscape, employees with critical “soft skills,” cultural competences, and language abilities, like those gained in experiences abroad, have a significant leg up.

Nicole Isaac, Head of U.S. Public Policy at LinkedIn, discussed this key issue as part of his “future of work” panel remarks in the plenary session. At another session, Kirsten Baker, CEO and co-founder of Global Professional Services explained how her company helps people articulate the skills they learn during intercultural and international experiences and matches them with employers and jobs where those skills are highly valued.

5. Equal access is key

This brings me to the final recommendation. Clearly, if study abroad and global competence are so important, and increasingly connected to employability, we have a responsibility to make sure that these opportunities are available to anyone who wants to take advantage of an international learning experience. Doubling study abroad numbers by 2020 means more than marketing, it means strategically looking at funding streams for scholarships, program design to support diverse participation from underserved populations, and structures that allow anyone with the desire and motivation (including those with physical disabilities, financial constraints, or lower GPA’s) the chance to gain a global experience.

IIE Generation Study Abroad Summit

For organizations working in study abroad these recommendations present a critical moment for self-reflection. Now, more than ever, intercultural competence is necessary, and empowering young global citizens to engage in open, respectful and supportive connections across cultures is key for our societies to thrive.

Organizations and individuals dedicated to global education need to recognize how we can evolve and continue offering relevant opportunities for more people to develop intercultural competence. AFS, for one, is looking to share our experience and resources to create partnerships that advance study abroad as well as increase our reach to schools, host families, and thousands of volunteers worldwide.

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