We live in a knowledge-driven global society. The world has closely knitted economic, social and cultural relations that offer greater entrepreneurial and professional opportunities than ever before. Since meritocracy is considered the basis for success, institutions of higher education like to invest in high-impact practices and programs that raise the quality of academic experiences for students. These include honors programs and study abroad.
In recent years, realization that globalization and global knowledge have an impact on students’ current and future prospects for success, universities and colleges have expanded study-abroad programs, and greater numbers of students are taking advantage of study-abroad opportunities. In 2011-12, 273,996 of the roughly 21 million students enrolled in higher education participated in study-abroad programs, according to the Institute of International Education (IIE). That’s an increase from 62,000 in 1987-88. Still, increased number of students in study-abroad programs is a fraction of total student population in higher education—just over 1%, These statistics demonstrate that due to cost associated with such educational experiences, logistical difficulties, and higher risk element in a volatile world, the number of students who will take advantage of such programs will remain relatively small.
IIE data suggest that personal and family resources finance 63% of study-abroad trips and students’ respective colleges or universities support about 23%. This information puts the burden of study-abroad programs on a student’s capacity to pay for the program, excluding students and families who are unable to pay. Education systems have hierarchical structures in terms of prestige and social and academic value attached to them. As IIE’s “Open Doors” data for 20011-12 indicate, the universities that could financially support students’ study-abroad are predominantly private or elite schools or four-year research universities. Community colleges are less common participants in study-abroad programs. Hence, social class plays a role in study-abroad programs. In recent years, state-supported universities and colleges have seen declining revenues from state sources. Therefore, programs such as study abroad will have diminishing support from the state governments and public institutions.
Privilege for a few
Study-abroad experiences will remain a privilege of a few. A majority of students will remain within the country, or within their institutional confines for their entire academic experiences. Hence, it becomes imperative that all students acquire knowledge and skills that enrich their cultural and educational experiences and have competencies to successfully live and work in a global society. Scarcity of study-abroad opportunities should not hinder students’ future success or limit their opportunities for global experiences. The institutions of higher education should consider revising and updating curricula, extracurricular programs and institutional culture where students could encounter global cultural diversity and acquire cultural competency for a global society.
One of the important steps toward global cultural competency is that campuses integrate international knowledge and experiences as a part of the academic and non-academic experiences on campus. The U.S. offers tremendous diversity of cultures, social classes and religions. Some institutions and students take advantage of such diversity of experiences available through service and internship opportunities in communities. Universities and colleges should continue to expand and enhance learning outcomes from these opportunities and connect them with comparative and global contexts.
One of the enduring educational experiences students could have is to attend conferences. Major national professional associations such as the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators and American Education Research Association have regional chapters’ conferences and offer institutes and workshops on various important topics to students and professionals. Conferences provide intensive immersion experience with regard to students’ field of education or profession. Fortunately, national and regional conferences are held in almost all states. University departments could develop a curriculum in their respective curricular fields for students to obtain maximum benefit from conferences and to achieve specific learning outcomes. Regional conferences or student focus conferences such as the New England Latino Student Leadership Conference, Southwestern Black Student Leadership Conference are some examples of student focused regional conferences that are relatively inexpensive or give significant discounts to students. The result would be significant: Students of diverse backgrounds will develop camaraderie, build professionalism, acquire knowledge by listening to various experts, acquire a range of skills by attending workshops, networking and finding role models to emulate. They could learn about a range of possible paths they can take in their lives, potential professions and get motivated to follow their dreams.
Another option is that universities should build strategic partnerships with one another, allowing students to visit various towns and campuses to learn about the culture of a state or city and about campus environments. For example, a student from a rural school could visit a metropolitan college or university or vice versa. This could be an exhilarating experience. The U.S. offers tremendous diversity of landscape, people, and cultures and universities could find the communities or cultures to which students are least exposed and arrange trips to those cultural environs.
Students in the 21st century global society will live and work in a rapidly changing social, economic and political world and require global cultural competencies to be successful. They need knowledge, skills, and dispositions to be conscientious global citizens. They need a global outlook to examine issues from diverse perspectives and have the ability to access professional and entrepreneurial opportunities around the globe. Study abroad is just one of the several opportunities and strategies to achieve that goal.
Aziz Talbani is director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs at the University of South Florida.