Study Abroad

The Complete History of Study Abroad

Study abroad has a long and interesting history in the US. Learn about how it started and how it has changed over the years.

Updated July 7th, 2015

Have you ever wondered how study abroad and international education got its start? Were people studying abroad a hundred years ago? Find out the answers to these questions and more in our four part history of the world of study abroad.

Part 1: 1190 - 1900, A Millennia of Laying the Groundwork

As William Hoffa writes in A History of Study Abroad, any (and all) travel "has educational potential, whatever its inspiration and purpose. What and how much is learned, however, depends greatly on how open the traveler is to what the road offers.” Hoffa implores students to be open to learning, but he is not the first to suggest this.

International education refers to "education that transcends national borders by exchange of people," and has been going on in written history for nearly a thousand years!

While it is true that Aristotle was born in Macedonia but attended school in Greece, and it might be more fun to envision Magellan or Ibn Battuta stopping in foreign lands for a quick language class before continuing on their journeys, it is actually another man who takes the title of "The Pioneer of Study Abroad."

The first ever "study abroader" was Emo of Friesland, who travelled from northern Holland to study at Oxford University in 1190. (Never heard of him? I hadn't either, but I've since given his Facebook page a "like.") Emo, in addition to being quite "sensitive," was extremely progressive -- he began to pave the way for international exchange in Europe for the next 800 years.

Along with the onset of the Middle Ages came years of increased poverty, fewer food sources, poorer educations, and lower living conditions than earlier European generations. Overall, the lives of the people were harder, and study abroad was reserved for the royal elite.

Power struggles between nations and stark patriotism flourished as countries continued to expand their borders in Africa and Asia. Napoleon Bonaparte attempted to unite all of Europe into one big empire (and failed), but his notions of peace and unity were not too farfetched -- he just had a different idea of how to get there.

Napoleon may have been echoing the sentiments of the Swiss diplomat Emmerich de Vattel, who in 1754 urged the "exchange of professors among various nations," arguing that "the peace and security of each nation was dependent upon the peace and security of all." This urgency to exchange ideas in the classroom for the betterment of individual societies directly correlates to a growing interest in international education. The peace congresses following the Napoleonic Wars were particularly key for creating the groundwork for the field of international education that we are familiar with today.

In 1792, French educator Marc-Antoine Jullien wrote to Louis XVI, demanding the creation of a worldwide commission on education composed of educational associations from the various European states. Jullien saw the potential to cultivate peace among nations, as well as capitalize on an opportunity to share ideas and grow mutual trust among educators.

In the mid-19th century, Jullien's wishes became reality, as representatives from the United States, Germany, France, and England met in London to design a plan for a permanent organization responsible for managing international education, which fully came into practice in 1876.

But what was going on in the "Land of the Free" while all of this exciting stuff was happening in Europe? John Diomatari, hailing from Ipsara, Greece, was making waves as the first ever known international student to make their way to an American university. John attended the University of Georgia and graduated in 1835, after which he went on to serve as the U.S. Consul in Athens, Greece. Not a bad gig for a returnee!

Forty years down the line, Indiana University began hosting a series of "summer tramps," a faculty-initiated study abroad program where university students were invited to Switzerland, France, England, Germany, and Italy during the summer holiday to study natural history, language, and culture.

These programs were lead by a man named Professor David Starr Jordan; because the program was so academically focused, it was eventually available for academic credit. (I wonder if PE credit was included; apparently the trip included 300+ hiking miles. Yowzers!)

Meanwhile, graduates of Princeton University found little inspiration on the Jersey Shore and instead headed to the far east, becoming the university's first fellowship program participants in Tianjin, China. This group of committed students supported the creation of a local YMCA chapter, helping to organize the nation's first athletic associations. China at the turn of the 20th century -- now THAT would be something worth seeing!

The first thousand years of international education may be slow moving, but the groundwork was laid for an exciting 20th century in the field.

Part 2: The Aftermath of the World Wars

While the first thousand or so years of "study abroad history" were not terribly turbulent or exciting, the 20th century took it personally upon itself to make up for lost time.

With the First World War coming to an end, American colleges, religious groups, and peace-promoting organizations started to explore creative ways to inspire their students to learn more about the world outside of US borders. By creating a greater understanding between nations through international exchange, they reasoned, countries could achieve a lasting peace and a strong basis for fostering more effective communication.

In 1919, the Institute of International Education (IIE) was established by Nobel Peace Prize winners Nicholas Murray Butler and Stephen Duggen, and in 1923, America's first officially credited study abroad program was launched at the University of Delaware.

Prof. Raymond W. Kirkbride, an instructor in the Modern Languages Department and a WWI veteran, had seen firsthand what disagreements between nations could do; he had seen smoldering ruins and burned-out buildings across the French countryside. But he had also met, and greatly enjoyed, the French, and understood the potential that travel and study had for promoting cross-cultural understanding. And now, in 1921, he was home...pitching his idea to send students to France for their junior year. -- University of Delaware

The summer of 1923, eight students embarked on a six-week journey to France. The program then progressed into a full-fledged program that came to be known as Junior Year Abroad (JYA), serving as the model after which other universities developed their own international programming.

The 1920s saw a huge influx in universities offering academic credit for international group travel. However, at this time, most of the programs focused on exchanges in European countries and were often short-term summer study programs.

IIE flourished in the first half of the 20th century, in which they achieved many milestones in the field of international education. Not only did the IIE encourage American students to hightail it abroad; they were also actively involved in US policies that opened doors for foreign students to come study in America. IIE President Stephen Duggan even convinced the US government to offer a new form of nonimmigrant visas for international students, which passed with the Immigration Act of 1921.

Another notable achievement achieved by the IIE was the first reciprocal exchange student program initiated between the US and Czechoslovakia in 1922. The 1930s saw a rapid increase in the diversity of programs offered outside of Europe, with the first Russian study abroad program offered to American students in 1934, the first Asian study abroad program in China in 1936, and the first South American study abroad program in Argentina in 1939. IIE's huge contributions to the field of international education set the groundwork for the modern study abroad programs that we all enjoy today!

The Second World War caused for a brief suspension in efforts to study internationally. In the aftermath, though, there grew a renewed commitment to the necessity of study abroad and the organic development of international understanding and trust between nations. In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt challenged all Americans to learn more about the world:

"A nation, like a person, has a mind -- a mind that must be kept informed and alert, that must know itself, that understands the hopes and needs of its neighbors -- all the other nations that live within the narrowing circle of the world." He said.

President Roosevelt understood that the expansion of student and teacher travel would be an effective tool to achieve this goal, and the strong political support for the US government only helped him to promote such travels.

One monumental effort to facilitate such development was the US government's establishment of the Fulbright Program in 1946, which sought to "humanize international relations" by turning "nations into people," thus creating better communication and trust. To date, more than 200,000 students have participated in this program across over 150 countries worldwide.

Throughout the 1940s, there were limited means for international students to travel abroad, as there was a shortage of ships crossing the Atlantic outside of post-war means. However, many education-focused organizations saw the opportunity to use troop transport vessels to send US students on exchange programs to Europe.

They took it upon themselves to negotiate directly with the US Department of State, and through joint efforts, these special provisions were created. In 1947, the United States Lines took full responsibility for the allowance of such travel, giving Semester at Sea a whole new meaning!

Americans and foreigners alike have begun to slowly see the need for increased communication and understanding in the aftermath of many years of wreckage and war.

Part 3: The 1950s -- The Cold War

As the world was settling into the post-war generation, there were increased opportunities for education abroad. With political support for study abroad as a means for increasing world peace, programs developed rapidly, with the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) leading the pack.

As early as 1951, two large organizations with similar meanings, Council on Student Travel and Council on Correlation of International Educational Enterprises, came together to form what we know today as CIEE. Drawn by US foreign policy initiatives, CIEE did their part to contribute to increased global understanding by facilitating overseas travel organized by ship travel.

To Europe alone, the Council sent 4,000 students annually. There was a slight dip in the numbers once the ships were redirected for the Korean War, but the Council did not give up -- they instead commissioned personal vessels from Europe, and still maintained the most popular study abroad programs in Europe.

In 1954, the Institute of International Education (IIE) published its first Open Doors report, an influential document that has since been published annually. The Open Doors report serves as a great resource for academics, the government, educational councils, and even Go Overseas readers (i.e. YOU!)

While Europe remained the ever-popular destination of choice, the 1950s and 1960s saw an increase in interest in non-European areas, such as Africa, Asia, and South America. Japan was of particular interest, and many efforts were made to create a base organization there to promote study abroad. Because of difficulties within the Tokyo bureaucracy, it was many years before the program could be fully fleshed out.

Critics pointed out not only the lack of diversity within overseas program options, but also the nature of the programs themselves. The usefulness, or benefits of a study abroad experience, were challenged nationally. The public argued that the programs did not help adequately prepare students for their experiences overseas, thus undermining their learning potential and reducing the positive impacts the students would have on society after their return.

These criticisms were taken to heart, and future programs were designed to place a greater emphasis on exposing students to the target culture as much as possible. President Eisenhower and the federal government vehemently supported the result: the 1960s National Defense Education Act. In the 1960s, reports indicate that as many as 16% of all secondary education students were enrolled in foreign language study (the current proportion is somewhere around half of that).

Despite the uphill battle, the next 20 years saw a decrease in the enrollment numbers for study abroad programs. The governments of the 1970s and 1980s did not make international education a high priority, and interest in the field declined. The only proposed long-term effort to increase study abroad opportunities was forged in the International Education Act (IEA); while this act did pass, the funding for study abroad never came to its full fruition as it was later re-allocated to help finance the war efforts in Vietnam.

The Cold War further complicated the availability and emphasis on study abroad programs in the post-World War decades. However, many universities felt strongly drawn to programs in Russia; despite the political situation, CIEE began establishing ties with universities in Moscow to create the first ever Russian language program abroad. This program flourished until the break up of the USSR in the late-1980s, which allowed CIEE to "expand its exchange… and study abroad [programs] to the world which had been hidden behind the Iron Curtain for more than seventy years."

The Cold War challenged the US's previous understandings of international relationships and motivated citizens to be more informed technologically, economically, environmentally, and politically. As a result, passionate Americans interested in international affairs flooded the study abroad market. Campaigning politicians began touting the virtues of expertise in subjects critical to US national security, such as languages. In 1991, the David L. Boren federal grant and scholarship program was instituted in light of the aggressive need for an increased presence abroad.

Student exchange did not solve the world’s problems, but it played a real role in creating a more world-minded outlook on the part of the post-war generation. This reduction of national bias also served to allow this generation to focus on certain crucial problems that cut across national boundaries.

While study abroad in the latter half of the 20th century may have fallen victim to war through loss of funding and decreased attention, the field did not completely die out.

Part 4: From the 1990s to Modern Study Abroad

Part three of study abroad's exciting history ended with the collapse of the USSR and the subsequent raising of the iron curtain. The following two decades saw an incredible increase in exchange programs between American universities and those of other countries. Because of advancing technology, infrastructure, and communication, the tourism sector boomed. This improved accessibility to travel gave the study abroad industry just the kick it needed, and the entire American academic community wanted to take part!

University boards saw an opportunity not only to send students, but also faculty, abroad, thus increasing university connections and creating a solid basis for full-scale and rapid development. Though exchanges had existed on a relatively small scale, the increased connections led to the institutionalization of partnerships, and the field grew into a more polished and refined industry.

In earlier years, study abroad programs largely focused on second language learning and the documentation of all contemporary studies. As programs matured and expanded, however, they became increasingly rigorous and sophisticated. In the 1990s and 2000s, programs moved away from one-dimensional course offerings to instead a comprehensive review of all relative impact variables on learning, including the duration and the housing options for the programs.

Beyond second language acquisition, programs now emphasized intercultural competence, global awareness, academic discipline, and professional skills. Factors that were at one time not deemed important were now documented and considered when determining a programs' success.

The US government continued to show support for international education by increasing the number of opportunities available to students for overseas study. In response to criticisms that study abroad only benefits certain types of students, the Department of State created the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship program as part of the International Opportunity Act of 2000. This program awards undergraduate Federal Pell Grant recipients, and aims to diversify both the kind of students who study abroad as well as the countries and regions they visit.

Another exciting development following the turn of the century was the initiation of "International Education Week." Held annually the week before Thanksgiving, this event specifically promotes the benefits of global exchange, not only as a physical crossing of borders, but also as mental preparation for thinking globally in local situations.

International Education Week is an opportunity to celebrate the benefits of international education and exchange worldwide. This joint initiative of the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Education is part of our efforts to promote programs that prepare Americans for a global environment and attract future leaders from abroad to study, learn, and exchange experiences in the United States. Source: U.S Department of State.

This week is now celebrated in over 100 countries and continues to grow and expand across the globe. Don't forget to partake this upcoming fall on your university campus!

The 2007 Economic Crash

The economic downturn that hit the United States in the late 2000s hurt the study abroad industry, and the 2008/2009 academic year saw a decrease in the number of students going overseas. However, the industry recovered quickly -- while 260,327 students studied abroad for academic credit in 2008/2009, 270,604 studied did the following year.

Regardless, this still only represents approximately 1% of all enrolled American students. These outgoing students stayed for one or two academic terms, compared to the 690,923 foreign students pursuing full degree programs in the USA that same year. Currently, 77% of American universities do not require students to take a foreign language course to earn a Bachelors degree. Only one American university, Goucher College requires a study abroad experience of every undergraduate as a condition of graduation.

As you can see, though great strides and improvements have been made in the field of international education over the past 100 years, there remains a great need for improvement. Exchanges are critical to the development of mutual understanding and respect between countries, cultivating an appreciation and respect for the US itself. If America wants to invest in the future, build leadership overseas, and foster global mindedness organically, studying abroad and other academic-oriented international exchanges must be made a priority.

As said by International Alliance, "No matter how we define it in our local contexts, we share the belief and commitment that young people have a right to and a need for international learning -- and so do the societies in which they live. In a world that is evermore inter-connected and which faces challenges of heightened global relevance, we can’t afford to let our young people and our societies move into the future without understanding that we are all in this together."

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