By Laura Olmstead Tonelli
Dean of Faculty and Academic Affairs
With the current focus on cutting the cost of undergraduate education, one popular element that might seem easily expendable is the popular option to study abroad. Even those programs that are sponsored by the home institution involve added expenses, and the price tag can be discouraging to students and their parents. Isn’t it just safer and cheaper to stay home?
The answer, in my opinion, is a resounding “No.” The increasingly global nature of our every interaction makes it more important than ever for young people to have an intensive experience in another culture. While it may be difficult to quantify the educational benefits, just as it is for a humanities education, there are important indicators of the extraordinary value of study abroad programs. Recent studies now provide hard data, not simply anecdotal evidence, that demonstrate these benefits: expanding students’ world views, affecting their life choices, increasing their tolerance of new ideas and behaviors, and imparting a greater sense of civic duty at home.
The Institute for International Education of Students (IES), a non-profit consortium that has organized study-abroad programs for over 50 years, discovered that of their 3000 participants polled, more than half reported that after graduation, they had worked or volunteered abroad. Nine in ten said that the experience led them to seek a greater diversity of friends. In addition, and what is most obvious to those of us who lead such programs, is the personal growth that can occur in even a three-week period. In this same survey, besides new language skills (which granted, for some, may be focused on reading a bar menu or shopping for shoes), over 96% reported an increase in self-confidence after studying abroad.
But the most interesting finding is the effect of the travel/study experience on a sense of civic duty. Researchers in Minnesota who surveyed over 6300 people, who had studied abroad in the last 50 years, found a high level of civic engagement, philanthropy, knowledge production, and social entrepreneurship. Among the generational differences, more recent graduates show an even higher level of volunteerism, which they attribute to study abroad. What is more, one does not have to spend a semester or year abroad to reap the rewards; it is “the intensity and quality of the program” that mattered, not the duration.
So while we look for ways to make education affordable for all, let’s continue to fund scholarships that take undergraduates out of their comfort zone and into a new learning environment, where they will be challenged daily to adapt and appreciate la moda d’essere of another culture. These “worldly” students are learning skills to bring back to their own country, to apply in their own communities.