Education versus Vacation: Making International Education More Impactful

Syd O'Wesney

Introduction

As we’ve discussed in previous blog posts, the need for more globally minded citizens is at its height in a world fastly globalizing. Study Abroad has long been thought of as one of the most obvious ways to achieve intercultural competencies like open mindedness, adaptability, and positionality. Yet, some research has come out in recent years to the contrary. In the studies linked at the bottom of this post, many troubling findings have emerged when researching study abroad programs. Some found that while study abroad students experience substantial changes during their time abroad, they often have trouble understanding and vocalizing what those changes are. Another study on short term programs finds that short term faculty led programs do not always achieve their goal because of this separation between the academic and real life experiences of studying abroad, as well as failing to embed intercultural learning and reflection into their curriculum. Others found increased ethnocentrism after students returned, rather than a more global mindset.

Short term programs are a great option for students who can’t fit a full semester of study abroad into their schedule, and can provide many unique opportunities for learning and development. Full semester programs provide more time for deeper immersion and are often more accessible for low-income students. Both have the opportunity to and, when done right, have achieved more culturally competent participants. Yet, if a study abroad program fails to create a global mindset and understanding in their participants, what then sets the program apart from simply traveling to the location for fun?

Where Programs Can Fall Short

Now, as someone who has studied abroad and is currently interning in the field, I am an obvious proponent of International Education. I wouldn’t trade my experiences for the world and I still find myself reflecting and learning from them years after the fact. It’s something that I would want everyone to experience and is why I care so much about accessibility for all. Despite being a big proponent, I also understand that the field is far from perfect and has a long way to go in many aspects. One of the greatest skills you can acquire in life (in my humble opinion) is to be able to still critique the things that you care deeply about, rather than blindly supporting everything about it to the end. Feedback creates change, and change can make a better world. That’s why I’ve become more and more aware of the downfalls of study abroad programs as I explore the literature on it. 

The subject peaked my interest after reflecting on past conversations I’d had with both study abroad alumni and people who had traveled extensively on their own. In both groups, I found people who had developed wonderful intercultural competencies and were very passionate about global citizenry. Yet, I also met people in both groups who were quite the opposite. They have ranged from close-minded and judgmental to outright bigoted in the way they discussed a variety of subjects, despite their time spent abroad in either capacity. Initially, these people and the way they viewed the world shocked and disturbed me. They had seen an entirely different side of the world, so how could they still view other cultures and groups of people with disdain and outright Othering? 

Once I had time to reflect, as well as read some of the literature, I began to understand more. Before this, I had been under the impression that any time spent abroad would create positive change in people. To me, the exposure itself was enough to cause a shift in worldview. I know now that although that can promote this shift, it’s not always enough. While it’s still quite possible to develop these skills and awareness by simply traveling, there is no specific structure facilitating such development. This is where intercultural awareness can fail to reach people, even if they’ve seen a large part of the world. Study abroad may have more structure in some ways, but the structure of facilitating intercultural development is a crucial piece that must explicitly be there. If the programs we send participants on don’t adequately instill intercultural awareness and self reflection, they become nothing more than traveling while taking classes, and we know now that that isn’t enough.

Recommendations

While I don’t have all the answers, I hope that this article in itself works as a call to action for International Educators and Coordinators to delve deeper into this subject. Here are articles discussing the subject:

I also have compiled a short list of implementations to study abroad programs that can promote intercultural development. This is in no way comprehensive, but I hope it will be a good springboard to work off of:

1. The classroom should never be completely separated from the location. Use the location to your advantage. Field trips shouldn’t just involve tourist sites to visit for fun. Take students to local places that relate to the topics discussed and have them apply the knowledge in the classroom to a real life situation.

2. Self reflection activities should be facilitated throughout. Self reflection is one of the key components of student development that is often missing in education in general, and international education is no different.

Have students write a reflection about their expectations for the host country as well as how they think they will adapt to the new setting.

Facilitate weekly reflection exercises both about student learning in the classroom as well as where they are at in terms of culture shock, adaptability, homesickness, etc.

After students return home, they should do a final reflection exercise in which they reflect on what they wrote throughout the experience and how their world view has changed from the initial reflection.

3. Weekly to daily check-ins (depending on the program length) with students. The educator should monitor how students are feeling in the program so that they can explore and discuss their feelings. This can either be a group exercise or it can be one-on-one if some students may not feel as comfortable sharing their feelings and experiences with the entire group. Students can then open up about feelings they may not fully understand and be given the opportunity to reflect and explore these more.

4. Acknowledge and explore Identity and Intersectionality. Intersectionality acknowledges that people have multiple identities and that those identities intersect and affect each other in different ways. Study abroad has historically been a very white, cisgender, straight, and able bodied experience, but this is no longer the case. Students from a range of identities and abilities are studying abroad now, and they will experience the world differently than their more privileged counterparts. Encourage students to discuss how their experiences differ based on their identities. This will provide visibility to students who may feel isolated in their experience, and it will help other students understand perspectives that they don’t have. 

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