Studying Abroad—Is it Worth it?
“Journeys are the midwives of thought. Few places are more conducive to internal conversations than moving planes, ships, or trains. There is an almost quaint correlation between what is before our eyes and the thoughts we are able to have in our heads: large thoughts at times requiring large views, and new thoughts, new places.
Introspective reflections that might otherwise be liable to stall are helped along by the flow of the landscape.”
Senior Editor, Academic Communications
Travel, in general, and study abroad, in particular, have powerful effects on learning. The literature abounds in examples of people whose lives were changed by study in societies and cultures outside of their own.
Consider just three historically significant examples:
Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell (1868-1926)—Born in England and the first woman to earn highest honors (Modern History) at Oxford, Bell parlayed a privileged background and wanderlust into the learning of Arabic and Persian languages and Middle Eastern culture through travel and study throughout areas now known as Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Ultimately, her unparalleled travel-based learning would evolve into insight and cross-cultural skills, on a par with or perhaps exceeding that of Lawrence of Arabia, which made her contributions to British intelligence instrumental in the ousting of the Ottoman Empire from several countries in the Middle East. Additionally, Bell’s writings would ultimately inform Middle Eastern understanding throughout the Western world for many decades following her death.
Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)—Born in India, but educated in London—where he studied law, comparative religion, and secular humanism—Gandhi returned to his home country where success in law practice eluded him. In 1893 he signed a contract for a short-term stint in South Africa working for the Indian law firm of Dada Abdullah & Company. His experiences in South Africa—especially with prejudice against people of Indian origin—led to a 21-year saga of political activities and a personal commitment to non-violence and civil disobedience. He took the latter principles and their application back to India where he was instrumental in India’s journey to independence from Great Britain in 1947. Years later, Gandhi’s philosophy and inspiring example would serve as a touchstone for Martin Luther King, Jr. and other leaders in the U.S. civil rights movement.
Norman Borlaug (1914-2009)—A native of Cresco, Iowa, Borlaug was educated and trained in forestry and plant pathology at the University of Minnesota (bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees). In 1944, he assumed a leadership role in a project to improve grain production in Mexico. The project was sponsored by the Mexican Government and the Rockefeller Foundation and led to further travel and study during a career of plant development (especially wheat varieties). The result? The Green Revolution that was pivotal in transforming countries such as India, Mexico, and Pakistan from being net importers to becoming net exporters of grain. It is now acknowledged that the Green Revolution may have prevented the starvation of more than a billion people worldwide and contributed to a litany of accolades for Borlaug’s work, including his receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.
The Costa Rica study abroad students watch as a fellow student prepares to slide down a zip line on a canopy tour near Arenal Volcano in La Fortuna, Costa Rica. (Photo provided by Jon Ulmer)
Besides the stellar individuals noted above, there are great numbers of people—some famous and some not so famous—whose lives were changed forever by learning abroad. For example, consider members of the USA Today’s 2010 All-USA College Academic Team (USA Today 2010). Of the 20 scholars at private and public institutions ranging from Harvard to Arizona State to MIT and Georgia Tech, 19 designees all had prospective (e.g., Rhodes and Marshall scholars) or completed study abroad experiences, some including research projects in developing countries in Asia and Africa and others credited with multiple experiences across more than one continent.
In the context of Texas Tech, one of us (Katie Allen) has interviewed and videoed students and faculty members who have had exceedingly favorable experiences studying at one of Texas Tech’s European centers or other Texas Tech-affiliated venues. Video profiles of these students and faculty members are linked to this article. Thus, this article is about myriad opportunities and how life’s directional flows can be changed dramatically by studying abroad—beginning with experiences in college. We will also consider pragmatically what it takes to mount a study abroad adventure and consider some Texas Tech contextual elements and services that should be of value to students and faculty members alike.
An Institutional Perspective
It may seem like a rather droll charge, but if you survey vision and mission statements of U.S. colleges and universities, you’ll find a variety of espoused commitments to global experience and understanding. For example, consider the vision statement of Texas Tech University (Strategic Plan 2010), which states clearly that the future of the university and its academic community is tied integrally to student success and engaging the world. Or, consider the mission statement of Middlebury College in Vermont (2006), which notes:
“At Middlebury College we challenge students to participate fully in a vibrant and diverse academic community. The college's Vermont location offers an inspirational setting for learning and reflection, reinforcing our commitment to integrating environmental stewardship into both our curriculum and our practices on campus. Yet the College also reaches far beyond the Green Mountains, offering a rich array of undergraduate and graduate programs that connect our community to other places, countries and cultures. We strive to engage students' capacity for rigorous analysis and independent thought within a wide range of disciplines and endeavors, and to cultivate the intellectual, creative, physical, ethical and social qualities essential for leadership in a rapidly changing global community. Through the pursuit of knowledge unconstrained by national or disciplinary boundaries, students who come to Middlebury learn to engage the world.”
The Texas Tech and Middlebury examples are hardly unique. Thus, we find commitments to internationally based or study abroad education programs in nearly all U.S. colleges and universities. But, the degrees to which such programs are developed and supported vary considerably from institution to institution. The trick for the college-age learner (and his or her parents) is to determine study abroad program strengths as a part of choosing an institution to earn a degree. Let’s explore this topic a bit more.
Institutional commitments to study abroad tend to play out in programs with one or more of the following features:
- Centers or campuses in selected countries, with varying degrees of home campus faculty member involvement
- Contractual agreements with internationally based universities for exchange of students or support of students from the U.S.-based institutions
- Arrangements with larger inter-institutional consortia
The Texas Tech Costa Rica study abroad students in front of Arenal Volcano at La Fortuna, Costa Rica. Arenal Volcano is an active volcano in central Costa Rica. (Photo provided by Jon Ulmer)
The situations noted above have varying attractiveness and liabilities, and at the risk of getting too detailed, we want to offer some advice with all three of the noted situations.
First, consider institutions with centers or campuses abroad. The size and scope of such operations varies from full-fledged campuses served by faculty and staff members who are all employed by the home institution, to physical centers owned or leased by the college or university and having varying arrangements for institutional involvement by faculty and staff members. For example, a U.S. college or university might partner with an institution in another country wherein instruction and student services are a joint responsibility. When making choices based on differing options, here are some good questions to ask:
- Is the non-U.S.-based campus or center and its programs fully accredited by the institution’s regional accrediting agency (e.g., Southern Association of Colleges and Schools [SACS]) as certified by the U.S. Department of Education, as well as program accrediting bodies (e.g., The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business or ASCSB International for programs in business-related fields) where applicable? At Texas Tech, our campuses in Seville, Spain and Quedlinburg, Germany are fully staffed by TTU professionals and approved through our university-wide SACS accreditation. Coursework taken at either center is applicable to TTU degree requirements, including those in program-accredited fields.
- How are internationally based living arrangements handled? Are students left to their own devices in finding living accommodations, or does the institution own or lease residential facilities or maintain well-developed relationships with host families? At the TTU center in Seville, students live with host mothers—usually widows who have raised children and have established records of helping our students not only with housing arrangements, but also with meals and other homely comforts. Similar arrangements have been made with families in Quedlinburg. Our students, overall, have indicated a high degree of satisfaction with these living arrangements in Spain and Germany.
- For programs in countries where English is not the first language, what arrangements are offered for foreign language instruction either prior to or during a study abroad period? At Seville and Quedlinburg, language instruction is consistently offered with opportunities for students to gain increasing degrees of Spanish or German proficiency, depending in part on their stays at the two centers.
- Given differing time options for study abroad—typically one month, six weeks, or one and two semester stays—what opportunities are provided, paid or otherwise, for travel to neighboring cities or domains? Does center-organized travel—typically involving instruction and learning in areas such as art, architecture, culture, and history—serve as an integral part of the study abroad program? Multi-faceted travel experiences are built into all study plans at Seville and Quedlinburg. Thus, students return to Texas Tech culturally, intellectually, and socially enriched.
- What systems are in place to insure the health and welfare of student participants? Health insurance options and plans are in place both in Seville and Quedlinburg. Additionally, Texas Tech’s seasoned staff members are well-familiar with local service providers to handle any healthcare need.
Students who participate in study abroad programs are often able to visit and see many places. This France study abroad student was able to walk around the gardens of Versailles and see the mulitple fountains, lakes, and mazes as music played in the background. (Photo provided by Danny Marquez)
Scoping out the above noted matters might seem daunting, but answers to such questions will be immensely helpful in making choices, including whether an institutionally run campus or center is preferable to signing on with an institution that has a contractual arrangement with the home college or university. Let’s consider this option a bit more.
When considering study abroad, you frequently hear references to “exchange programs.” The latter, in principle, require that students change places with one another at U.S.-based and non-U.S. colleges or universities. In theory, the cost to the cooperating institutions should be nil and the savings passed on to the participating students. Such arrangements seem highly attractive, but in practice require significant attention administratively to make them work. Additionally, the cooperating institutions are frequently challenged to find one-to-one matches for students, and for this reason exchange programs are less commonly encountered than you might imagine among study abroad programs.
Instead of strict exchange programs, you’ll commonly find contractual relationships among U.S. colleges and universities and their international counterparts wherein institutional and student services are the responsibility of the latter. Such arrangements entail greater potential liability for prospective study abroad students than operations run exclusively though a college- or university-managed campus or center; however, there are ways to modulate the risks. For instance, Americans can choose study abroad options that involve one or more of American-styled colleges and universities that are members of the Association of American International Colleges and Universities (AAICU). These institutions, though based in countries such as Bulgaria, Egypt, and Greece, are accredited by U.S. regional accrediting bodies and are administered similarly to institutions in America. Thus, they have the feel of U.S.-based colleges or universities while being located in more or less exotic places. So, the learning systems in place along with personnel, including faculty and staff members, give you the feeling of being at home. But overall, the day-to-day experiences involve many of the learning advantages of living and learning in other countries.
Besides institutions coming under the AAICU umbrella, colleges or universities might have specific contractual relationships (i.e., frequently referred to as Memoranda of Understanding or MOU) with internationally based institutions, wherein all instructional and student services reflect the norms and culture of the host country. These types of arrangements will involve some potential risk, as noted below, although the relationships might have built over many years and might in fact be reinforced by regular faculty exchanges with the U.S.-based institutions.
TTU, through our Office of International Affairs and its study abroad division, has crafted MOUs with dozens of colleges and universities in more than 33 nations worldwide. The MOUs and affiliation agreements together allow the Office of International Affairs to send students to more than 70 countries. Our international affairs professionals, led by a former U.S. Ambassador (Tibor Nagy) with 32 years experience in the U.S. diplomatic corps, take these associations seriously, and all MOUs are reviewed periodically. In practically all cases, TTU professionals have had or currently have academic relationships with the host institutions, and the sites are regularly visited.
TTU has a center in Seville, Spain. (Photo provided by TTU Office of International Affairs)
TTU has a center in Quedlinburg, Germany. (Photo provided by TTU Office of International Affairs)
In general, as you move away from home-institutional control such as in TTU’s centers in Seville and Quedlinburg, you should exercise caution and ask questions about what study and life will be like at the host institution. Such questioning and exploring will be especially important when engaging in study abroad experiences arranged through large educational consortia.
Many U.S. colleges and universities partner with regionally and nationally based consortia that provide organizational and logistical help in arranging study abroad services. The consortia vary from specific inter-institutional arrangements, such as the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) of the Big Ten (e.g., Indiana University, the Ohio State University, and the University of Michigan) and the Southeastern Conference Academic Consortium (SECAC) of the Southeastern Athletic Conference (e.g., Auburn University and the University of Georgia), to large consortia bodies (e.g., Institute for Study Abroad 2010) involving a plethora of opportunities in countries around the world. While the inter-institutional consortia, such as the CIC and SECAC, and some of the other larger multi-institutional consortia will provide reliable and high-quality services, some others might not. The difference is based often on the profit status of the organization. Let me explain in a broader context.
Texas Tech students have a chance to take classes and interact with other students from around the world through study abroad programs. France study abroad students in this particular class, the architecture and history of Paris, were able to walk around to important sites in Paris, such as the Louvre, while the professor told them about important events that transpired there. (Photo provided by Danny Marquez)
There is a paucity of individuals who have organized their thinking about the profit status of colleges and universities. While many Americans have an understanding of public versus private universities, fewer individuals are cognizant of the differences between non-profit private colleges and universities (e.g., Dartmouth and Yale) and those run for profit (e.g., the University of Phoenix). Although many for-profit institutions—in the U.S. at least—are fully accredited (by regional accrediting organizations as noted above) and are credible, many are not, and when you look internationally, the picture involving for-profit higher education gets very murky and prone to serious risks of varying types. Former American College of Thessaloniki President Richard Jackson (2009) recently highlighted these risks, while pointing to the exceptional status of the American international college and university system operating as non-profit institutions with full accreditations.
Overall, college-level learners (and their parents) will want to avoid becoming part of the unwritten stories of students arriving in a foreign country, being handed an envelope with instructions for getting settled and beginning study, and being left forthwith. Students generally need and indeed deserve more thoughtful and continuing services, especially if they are embarking on their first study abroad experience. Thus, I recommend that all prospective study abroad candidates seek help through a U.S. college or university-based study abroad (or international studies) office. Professionals who staff these offices are generally well-versed in the opportunities, advantages, and potential pitfalls of the myriad study abroad options. At Texas Tech, these offices and services are well-provided for through our Office of International Affairs, headed by Ambassador and Vice Provost Tibor Nagy. The Office of International Affairs website is a great starting place to find answers for questions about opportunities affiliated with TTU.
Now, it may seem like a lot of bother preparing for a study abroad experience, but believe us, the effort is well worth it. For those who are not convinced, I would like to offer some tips and advice that will help insure success in a study abroad program or, for that matter, embarking on travel study in general.
Study Abroad: Spain
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Study Abroad: Costa Rica
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Study Abroad: Student Perspective
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Making the Leap: Learning Through Travel and Study Abroad
In our complex and information-saturated world, you can use practically everything you learn at one time or another in your career. And, travel or study abroad can be such a broadening and enriching experience that it ought not be wasted. Accordingly, here are some thoughts worth considering, whether you travel near or far:
- It may seem trite, but do your homework about your destination. What museums and other attractions are located there that might be of great benefit in understanding the study area or nation it represents? What indigenous authors might help to illuminate the scene? For example, a trip to Amherst, Massachusetts, would be poorer if you had not learned about the life and work of Emily Dickenson. Analogously, an awareness and understanding of Michelangelo will add immensely to a trip to Rome or Florence.
- Consider keeping a journal during your study abroad program.
- Try to “go native” whatever your destination (although avoid use of the word “native” in African nations, where it has a pejorative connotation). By this I mean to try new foods, experience local customs, and seek understanding of the local culture. College and university study abroad professionals have shared with us stories of students who had great difficulties acclimating to different cuisine and cultural envisions, thus stunting their experiences.
- If you travel or study in a country where English is not the first language, try to learn as much as you can of the local language. You might not become fluent in the language, but some proficiency goes a long way. Indeed, you’ll be surprised how appreciative people will be even if you can only muster morning or evening greetings along with a few courteous expressions. Certainly, if you are committed to any extended stay in a non-English dominant culture, make arrangements, preferably ahead of time, for formal language instruction and learning. This is especially important in study abroad programs wherein students board with host families.
- Seek out opportunities, particularly during study abroad ventures, to get to know well people who live in your host country.
- Look for study abroad opportunities that embody service-learning courses, wherein directed volunteer work, often with local citizens, becomes part of the formal learning effort. At one university where one of us served, for example, a service-learning course oriented toward cultural, economic, and educational development was implemented in a small village in Belize. Teams of undergraduate students—from architecture to education to civil engineering—were organized through on-campus and in-country interdisciplinary courses in rural development. The program became so successful and personally satisfying to the students and faculty members involved that participants were known to return home eagerly seeking additional tours of service.
- Consider how international service might lead to special postgraduate opportunities. At two universities where one of us has worked (i.e., Texas Tech University and Washington State University), partnerships were formed with the U.S. Peace Corps, which requires coordinated foreign service and study—all leading to master’s degrees in fields such as agriculture, education, and public administration.
- Think of a way to extend the benefits of travel and study abroad through speaking and writing projects at home. Many people use travel experiences to inform specific writing and communication efforts. This paper, for example, would not have been possible without international experiences one of us has had that includes more than three decades of service to projects in countries as varied as Bolivia, Chile, China, Greece, Ireland, Russia, South America, and Tunisia. Such experiences truly change one’s life forever.
Where do you begin in planning travel learning and study abroad? For resolve, consider Texas Tech’s Core Values and Ethical Principles (Strategic Plan 2010), which advise interest and understanding in differences among people, places, histories, and cultures. Imagine how travel and particularly study abroad might round out the learning component of your life-long learning plan, and consider your personal stakes in enhancing and enriching your life’s career opportunities that may lead to places near and far. If questions or concerns arise, seek help through our Office of International Affairs. And, keep us appraised about your adventures.
Institute for Study Abroad, Butler University; http://www.ifsa-butler.org (June 9, 2010).
Jackson, Richard. “American Universities Around the Mediterranean and Beyond: The Case for the Support by the Obama Administration,” Mediterranean Quarterly 20, no. 1, (2009): 69-76.
Middlebury College Mission Statement, Adopted by Middlebury Board of Trustees, March 2, 2006; http://www.middlebury.edu/about/handbook/general/mission_statement (June 9, 2010).
Texas Tech University Strategic Plan, 2010-2020—Making it possible. . .; http://www.ttu.edu/stratplan/docs/MakingItPossible-20102020StratPlan.pdf (June 9, 2010).
“USA Today’s 2010 All-USA College Academic Team.” USA Today, June 9, 2010. http://www.usatoday.com.
About the Authors
Bob Smith serves as provost and senior vice president at Texas Tech University, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Katie Allen serves as senior editor, academic communications in the Office of Communications and Marketing at Texas Tech University, email@example.com.
A special thanks to the following for contributing content to this article: Danny Marquez, Texas Tech senior majoring in civil engineering; Joe Markey, Texas Tech senior majoring in biochemistry; Josh Clemmons, Texas Tech post-baccalaureate pre-medical student; Texas Tech Department of Agricultural Education and Communications; Texas Tech College of Media and Communication; Dr. Jon Ulmer; Dr. Kent Wilkinson