Incorporating an international component into American higher education is critically important for creating a workforce with the capabilities and mindset to tackle the world’s toughest challenges of global interdependence: disease, violent extremism, climate change, economic inequality, and unjust supply chain practices. On a broader level, individuals with international exposure are better able to build relationships between people and communities, solve problems, and think creatively. We simply need more of these kinds of people in our world.
Going overseas during university, whether for work, study, or teaching, offers tangible and statistically proven results for participants. A 2014 study conducted by IES Abroad reports that 97% of students who went abroad during university found employment within 12 months of graduation versus a 49% norm. 90% got into their first or second choice graduate program and 34% said that going abroad helped them choose their career field.
97% of students who went abroad during university found employment within 12 months of graduation versus a 49% norm.
“We believe that more and more employers are realizing the extraordinary benefits of study abroad, and are seeking out graduates who have had study abroad experiences. Key jobs skills such as adaptability, global understanding and tolerance, leadership, and independence are directly fostered by learning and living abroad,” said Dr. Mary M. Dwyer, President and CEO of IES Abroad.
These benefits are observed to an even higher degree for college students choosing to participate in internships overseas. “When we talk to candidates, what’s important for us in global investments is people who have an understanding of different cultures, the different ways they communicate and do business,” said Ruth Ferguson, a senior vice president and human resources executive at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
With All These Benefits, Who Goes Abroad?
According to the 2014 Open Doors Report on International Education Exchange, the number of students who go abroad increased by 2% to nearly 300,000 in the 2013-2014 academic year.
More impressively, the number of U.S. students studying abroad has more than doubled in the last 15 years. The Open Doors report also found that 15,000 students were participating in non-credit international opportunities, like internships, research, and volunteer work.
Despite the positive net increase, fewer than 10% of all college students in the United States study abroad, and those that do select destinations mostly in Europe (53% of all participants). Compared to the meager 5% studying in China, the US needs to not only increase the overall numbers of students going abroad, but to broaden the geographic scope of their destinations.
That said, double digit growth is being seen in the number of Americans bound for South Africa, South Korea, Thailand, Peru, and Denmark.
Another issue drawn to the forefront of study abroad conversations is the lack of diversity among the US study abroad population. Although the numbers of minority students going abroad have risen overall, this segment still only accounts for 24% of American college students studying overseas.
Expanding Access to Studying & Interning Abroad
Several organizations are currently tackling these issues and expanding the number and type of students going abroad. The Institute of International Education (IIE) launched a national campaign called “Generation Study Abroad” in early 2014 that seeks to double the number of students studying abroad by 2020.
Over 300 institutions of higher education have become involved and 77 percent intend to expand short-term programs, including internship and volunteer opportunities abroad. Other related programs have been launched, such as the “100,000 Strong in the Americas” and “100,000 Strong in China” initiatives that aim to have 100,000 US students studying in those areas.
If we are to effectively prepare today's students to become tomorrow's global leaders, innovators, and agents of change, they must have opportunities to gain direct experience and apply their academic learning in an international setting.
Other leading study and intern abroad companies have designed programs and fellowships specifically to increase access to international programs. Cultural Vistas, a nonprofit which serves more than 5,500 students, professionals, and emerging leaders through career-focused international internships, educational study tours, language immersion and cultural exchange programs in the United States and around the world, is one such organization.
In 2013, they launched the Cultural Vistas Fellowship using its own funds to provide underrepresented U.S. university students a fully-funded professional development program with eight-week internships in Argentina, Germany, or India. The theme of this year’s fellowship centers on entrepreneurship and innovation. Cultural Vistas is one organization that focuses on combining meaningful advancement of career goals with memorable experiences of life in another culture.
"If we are to effectively prepare today's students to become tomorrow's global leaders, innovators, and agents of change, they must have opportunities to gain direct experience and apply their academic learning in an international setting," said Robert Fenstermacher, President and CEO of Cultural Vistas.
Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) is also expanding short-term study abroad offerings to increase access to international education opportunities for U.S. undergraduates. Beginning in 2016, CIEE will offer 36 new study abroad sessions in January and May to help ensure every student has the chance to study abroad. These sessions will be 3.5 weeks long and priced reasonably at $3,000 or less. Students can also apply for grants to help reduce the cost even further.
With market leaders like IEE, CIEE, and Cultural Vistas recognizing and addressing the issues of access to international experiences in a practical way, the number of students and especially students from a more diverse array of backgrounds will be able to reap the benefits of learning about new parts of the world hands-on.
International Experience as a Requirement
U.S. News data shows that the top 10 colleges with the highest percentage of students studying abroad had an average of 83.4% percent of 2012 graduates going overseas. But those schools were the exception. Given the strong quantitative and qualitative evidence that global experiences are hugely beneficial for participants in terms of both personal and professional career growth, are there institutions that already mandate students to study or work abroad?
“International experience is one of the most important components of a 21st century education, and study abroad should be viewed as an essential element of a college degree,” says Dr. Allan E. Goodman, President of IIE.
It turns out there are. Goucher College made study abroad a requirement in 2006, becoming the first college in the country to do so, and Soka University of America soon followed. Soka actually places a focus on foreign language and takes the idea of global citizenship to the next level, requiring students to study another language and both schools send 100% of their students abroad during their undergraduate program.
I learned how it feels to be far away from home in a place where you don't really speak the language. I now have an even greater appreciation for international students and immigrants in America.
Students like Hannah Spiegelman, a Goucher College Class of 2015 student, report back positively. Spiegelmen says she made her college selection partially because of the requirement and has especially benefited because “everyone goes abroad so it’s a normal part of the Goucher College experience.” Spiegelman added, study abroad “should be something that everyone does as part of their education” because it “shapes you so much as a person,” and nothing can compare to that experience abroad. Similarly, classmate Katherine Mowrer believes it’s “important to me that every student study abroad so that classroom discussions are framed in an international mindset.”
One student, Danielle Hemsley, chose to connect her global experience to her professional development through an internship with Área Logistica Humanitaria (ALH) of Valencia, and says of her time working abroad:
"I learned about business development. I strengthened my ability to conduct Internet research. I became more familiar with international companies and international websites. My Spanish improved. I learned about NGOs, and about Spanish and European culture. I learned how it feels to be far away from home in a place where you don't really speak the language. I now have an even greater appreciation for international students and immigrants in America. I also learned that I am more adventurous than I thought I was."
Clearly for Hemsley, her choice to give herself an additional advantage over her peers had a large pay-off.
However, other students, especially those from the STEM backgrounds (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) struggle with balancing the obvious value of international experience with completion of rigorous academic coursework. IAESTE, or the International Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Experiences, was first established in 1948 and now has more than 80 official member countries that host and send students abroad for technical internships each year.
Through IAESTE, which is represented and administered in the United States by Cultural Vistas, students travel to host countries where they complete paid internships at companies, universities, and research organizations.
Remarkably, IAESTE participants receive a stipend that generally covers at least the cost of living. With more programs like this one, international experience as a requirement could become more widespread and thus help more students gain experience, both academically and professionally, abroad.
Breaking Down Boundaries
Studying and interning abroad is a life-changing experience. People who live or have lived overseas bring the world closer together and promote a shared understanding and appreciation of diverse peoples, values, cultures, and aspirations. The organizations championing its permeation into all walks of college student life know that international experience is vital to a healthy outlook and global career. But the unfortunate reality is that gaining these experiences abroad is still not accessible to everyone.
People who live or have lived overseas bring the world closer together and promote a shared understanding and appreciation of diverse peoples, values, cultures, and aspirations.
"International professional experiences are an invaluable investment in one's career and our shared future," said Fenstermacher. “We know that cost remains the most significant barrier that prevents more Americans from reaping the benefits of these opportunities. If we are to succeed in reaching a more diverse range of students, we must continue to showcase the return these investments yield for students, employers, and communities as a whole.”
The challenge is simply opening more affordable and academically cohesive avenues for all students to participate. Whether through working or studying abroad, we learn that the world and opportunities to engage with it are endless. The opportunity to go overseas, therefore, should be as equally open, accommodating, and inclusive.