Until recently, the effects of study abroad experience on college students were mainly anecdotal in nature—more in the form of personal testimonials from students about what they gained through the experience: “Such a blast! Best bar scene ever and their drinking age is 18–how cool is that?!” and “Did you bungy jump yet off the Kawarau Bridge in Queenstown?” to the more serious “It opened my eyes to the way Americans are perceived in other countries.” But parents, university administrators, and funding agencies increasingly want hard evidence on the cost-benefits of study abroad experiences.
The number of U.S. students studying abroad has more than doubled in the past decade. During the 2013/14 academic year (latest stats available), 289,408 students studied abroad for at least a month for academic credit. (Source: Opening Doors, an initiative of the Institute of International Education.) The Institute of International Education recently launched the Generation Study Abroad campaign to double the number of U.S. university students who study abroad by the end of the decade. The campaign also aims to increase the diversity in race/ethnicity, academic disciplines, destinations (the UK and European countries are the vast favorites), and gender. Racial/ethnic minority students, first-generation college students, and STEM majors are underrepresented in study abroad programs. In addition, 65% of study abroad students from the U.S. are female. Are young women more adventuresome somehow?
Here are some intriguing findings from recent studies on the benefits of study abroad programs. Controlling for prior GPA, credit-taking, and SAT scores, a student who studies abroad has a 10% greater chance of graduating in four years than a student who does not. Why would that be, I wonder? It does run counter to what many parents–and even some academic advisors–worry about with study abroad, that it will complicate a student’s credit requirements and therefore delay their graduation. In my own case with a ‘junior year’ study abroad experience, the summer semester’s worth of credit allowed me to graduate a year early. Perhaps through study abroad experiences, students see the value in completing their undergraduate degrees as quickly as possible and getting on with the rest of their lives.
Study abroad experience has been shown to increase students’ self-reported cultural sensitivity, self-confidence/adaptability in dealing with complex, unfamiliar living/working/studying conditions, and knowledge of world geography. The American Association of Colleges and Universities identify intercultural understanding as an essential learning outcome for contemporary university liberal arts education. Employers and graduate school admissions committees place value on prior international study abroad and other international experiences (such as volunteering). For health professions students, study abroad experiences would seem to be ideal for helping to increase cultural knowledge/humility, as well as perspective (and humility!) on the failings of our U.S. healthcare system.
Before our study abroad program started this summer, I asked our current group of twenty-two university students who are here in New Zealand studying community health, to write down at least four personal goals they have for themselves. While a month is not a lot of time for a study abroad experience, it can be impactful, plus I have found it is more accessible to a broader demographic of students who otherwise might not get to have a study abroad experience.
We have an amazing and quite diverse group, many of whom are in (or going into) health professions education, including nursing, social work, medical anthropology, global health, pre-med, and pre-physical therapy. Here (paraphrased to protect identities) are some of what they wrote/shared with me in terms of their goals for this study abroad experience: “To find my place as a global citizen.” “To be able to problem-solve bravely and maturely.” “To learn new ways to manage my stress.” “To let the fire in my heart truly burn for global health.” “To get the chance to slow down and really reflect on where I have been and where I want to be in the future.” “To be able to practice cultural humility and greater global awareness.” “To push my boundaries and push myself outside my comfort zone; deal with difficulties in a mature manner.” And finally, from one of our many ‘first time out of the U.S.’ students, “I hope to have culture shock and awkward moments where my ‘Americanism’ shows.”
If our students accomplish even a few of these personal goals during our study abroad program, I will consider it a grand success.
- The Institute of International Education, an independent not-for-profit organization focusing on student global mobility. They have a great section on research and evaluation of study abroad programs.
- Glossari: Georgia learning outcomes of students studying abroad research initiative. Based out of the University of Georgia but including many partner U.S. colleges and universities, they have great (free) resources related to their aim of “promoting accountability for student learning in study abroad and international education.”
- “The High Impact of Education Abroad: College Students’ Engagement in International Experiences and Development of Intercultural Competencies” by Michael Stebleton, Krista Soria, and Blythe Cherney. In, Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, 2013.