Speaking from experience, studying abroad is not just an adventure, but a life-changing experience. During my six weeks in the Czech Republic (and, briefly, in neighboring Slovakia) during the summer of 2008, I not only learned about Czech culture, history, and politics in an academic setting, but absorbed firsthand the sights, sounds, lived experiences, and perspectives of a totally different society. It was the first time I ever truly immersed myself in another culture, and it gave me a deep appreciation of how a country’s unique historical development (especially relative to the U.S.) can impact its culture, society, politics, and national character.
More importantly, my study abroad also affirmed that “people are people everywhere” — that is to say, that distant foreigners are no different from us when it comes to their base needs, desires, fears, aspirations, and so on. The specifics will vary of course — the majority of Czechs, for example, are much more worried about Russian aggression than most Americans, by virtue of recent history — humanity and relatability remain.
I am thankfully not the only one to see the value in this experience. As argues in Foreign Affairs, the open-mindedness, empathy, and understanding inculcated in students studying abroad is not only valuable for its own sake, but in the aggregate and long term, can be indispensable to the prosperity of the U.S.
One symptom of Americans’ new isolation is a sharp contrast between the positive, even zealous views they hold of the United States and its role in the world and the anti-Americanism and negative perceptions of U.S. foreign policy that flourish almost everywhere else. This gap persists in part because relatively few Americans look beyond, or step outside, their own borders for a reality check. Less than 40 percent of Americans hold passports. Compare that figure with the numbers from other English-speaking countries that are geographically isolated: 50 percent of Australian citizens hold passports, as do more than 60 percent of Canadians and 75 percent of New Zealanders. In the United Kingdom, which is admittedly much closer to foreign destinations, some 80 percent of citizens carry passports.
Given the United States’ determination to project its hard and soft power and preserve its influence in a restless but interconnected world, the almost universal failure of the broader U.S. public to know and understand others, except through a military lens, is not just unfortunate but also dangerous. It severely hinders the creation and implementation of a rational, consistent, and nuanced foreign policy that reflects American values and enjoys public support.
I am privileged to be among the relatively few Americans to possess a passport as well as use it. I imagine that a sizable segment of passport-holding Americans have traveled only to a few countries, namely popular tourist destinations in Central America and the Caribbean. In other words, an fewer number of Americans are actually immersing themselves in the think of other cultures — which is a why study abroad programs, specifically structured to encourage a deep understanding of another culture, are so important.
Unfortunately, these courses are not as well utilized as they should be. It is no surprise that a country where the majority of citizens do not have passports would have few study abroad participants.
According to the most reliable estimates, some 304,000 U.S. students studied abroad for credit during the 2013–14 academic year, which represented about 1.5 percent of all American students enrolled in institutions of higher education that year. The number of Americans studying abroad seems especially low compared with the flow in the other direction. International students, for whom the United States has become the top destination of choice, now make up almost five percent of the total enrollment in U.S. higher education, split roughly evenly between undergraduate and graduate programs. According to the Institute of International Education (IIE), the foreign population in U.S. colleges and universities increased by ten percent in the 2014–15 academic year, to a record high of nearly 975,000 students, over 30 percent of whom were from China. Put simply, that means that there are more than three times as many foreigners studying at U.S. colleges and universities as there are Americans studying abroad altogether, and about the same number of Chinese students matriculate in the United States as do Americans anywhere in the world.
In an increasingly globalized and interdependent world, such a lack of exposure cannot stand. To make matters worse, the relatively few young Americans embarking on studies overseas represent a thin demographic slice of the population: mostly white, middle to upper class women majoring in liberal arts.
While studying abroad will hardly rectify all that ails the realm international relations, it offers plenty of worthy benefits.
It is hardly a new discovery that sending young Americans abroad promotes better understanding of global affairs and has other profoundly positive impacts at home. Many current and past leaders in U.S. business, government, science, education, the nonprofit and foundation sectors, and the arts participated in overseas study, service, or work experiences at an impressionable stage in their lives. Their time spent in other countries broadened their perspectives and deepened their appreciation for the many different ways that other societies approach common problems. Traditionally, Americans have tended to gravitate to western European destinations, but many have also spent formative months and years in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, where they came to see how the world does not always correspond to American preconceptions.
The benefits of an overseas experience are difficult to quantify, but there is little doubt that studying abroad can be beneficial for all students, regardless of their income level, background, or the school they attend. Two public institutions that have examined the issue, Indiana University and the University System of Georgia, found concrete results that contradict common misperceptions: higher four-year graduation rates among those who studied abroad. And international education, especially if enhanced by language training, can open doors and confer lifelong contacts and interests that a student might not have developed otherwise. Now that every academic field, profession, and industry has taken on an international dimension, study abroad increasingly appears to be an essential element of success, a requirement to compete in the global marketplace. And there is some evidence that obtaining part of one’s education overseas likely increases one’s lifetime earning potential—a further bonus on top of the extra $1 million or so that experts believe results from an undergraduate degree, on average, depending on the field of study.
Among the reasons for the dearth in study abroad programs is a lack of foreign language skills (a separate, if similar, problem I discussed recently), an academic culture that is not outward looking, and financial cost. Americans have generally and historically been an insular culture, regarding the world beyond our borders as uninteresting at best, or inferior at worst. If more people had a deep and personal experience with other cultures, this isolationist attitude — and the subsequently troubled foreign policy it breeds — might change.
Ungar proposes a federally-mandated policy, combined with political leadership that openly encourages the importance and necessity of looking abroad for ideas and solutions.
The time has come to establish a clear and forthright U.S. national education policy that recognizes the importance of international literacy and global awareness for the future of the United States. This will be essential in the years ahead to ensure U.S. competence and competitiveness in a rapidly evolving world. It will not be easy to eliminate from U.S. political discourse the routine invocations of American superiority and invulnerability, complete with divine blessings, which no longer have credibility beyond U.S. borders. But at a minimum, it must become acceptable for presidents and other politicians to acknowledge openly that Americans may find ideas and inspiration abroad. The United States will need many more civil servants, congressional staff members, leaders of business and science, and journalists with international exposure. This is a long-term process that has nothing to do with partisan rivalries or political posturing, and it will take a generation or more to see progress. But it is essential to begin, and a good place to start is in U.S. institutions of higher learning.
Needless to say, as a student of international relations and political science, and a self-described citizen of the world, I am totally on board with this idea. Of course, you do not have to be a lover of world culture or a starry-eyed idealist to appreciate the importance of studying abroad: in a rapidly globalized world, it may inevitably be the one way to remain relevant on the global stage. But even if we set aside such strategic concerns or practical concern, more students of all backgrounds should have the opportunity to immerse themselves in the multitude of interesting, informative, and life-changing cultural experiences that await around the world.
What are your thoughts?