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Keeping Up with les Voisins

Michael Ballagh questions the rankings race in study abroad participation

U.S. institutions of higher education have long sought validation in the rankings system dominated by entities such as U.S. News and Forbes. Less commonly known is the academic “arms race” around the number of students who study abroad; college websites tout these high rates as an indicator of institutional success, highlighting the presumed intercultural competencies students acquire as part of a concerted commitment to global education.

Moreover, aside from touting impressive statistics on study abroad numbers, rare is the institution of higher education that does not make broad claims to graduating “global or interculturally literate citizens.” On what basis are we making these claims?
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with heeding the college administration clarion call to increase student participation in study abroad programs.

Targeted outreach, support, and programming that enhance underrepresented student participation in study abroad are welcome trends. But in terms of raw numbers, one might argue that U.S. colleges and universities remain too beholden to the glamour of study abroad statistics; many baccalaureate institutions boast results that far exceed the 100% participation rate.

In many cases, these impressive statistics rely upon short-term programs (one to two weeks) that provide students an intense “global experience.” Can one confidently attest that a two-week program (or indeed a sojourn of any length) provides students the kind of learning sought and claimed by colleges and universities? Lost in the participation rankings race is a closer examination of study abroad goals and outcomes. More importantly, how can one accurately evaluate whether students have achieved the kind of global competencies that can actually benefit them beyond college?

At its core, study abroad aspires to heighten students’ levels of ethno-relative sophistication and (hopefully) forces them to examine their ethnocentric tendencies and privilege. Through a profound engagement with the host culture, students will begin to withhold their American judgment and see events and issues through the eyes (and morality) of their hosts. But is the very act of going abroad assisting such intellectual and emotional growth? Evidence clearly suggests that presence abroad in no way implies that sojourners will gain—or in many cases have any interest in gaining—a deeper understanding of the host community. Study abroad educators must acknowledge that many students and sojourners return home even more blinkered than ever. Being or even studying abroad in no way guarantees intercultural growth.

One needs to examine the structure of these programs to evaluate ways in which they are designed and taught to maximize students’ intercultural growth. Do the programs provide the means necessary to engage with host communities beyond the classroom? Do they employ host-family programs where families are not simply room renters but are key educators themselves? If students enroll in classes at partner universities abroad, are they required to examine their experiences through a cultural lens, or is the fact that they successfully completed a series of courses abroad sufficient evidence of their inter-cultural growth?

In many cases, students fully committed to engagement with a foreign culture are a self-selective bunch; they seek colleges that will allow them this kind of learning environment. Prospective students need to avoid being dazzled by the statistics thrown around by colleges. Does the fact that close to 100% of a student body “studies abroad” indicate that the college has a strong commitment to intercultural learning? Facile as it might sound, students need to look beyond the impressive quantitative statistics and examine the qualitative differences between educational philosophies (and the related programs) of study abroad.

While institutions of higher education are increasingly focused on extrapolating direct evidence of learning, study abroad assessment remains stubbornly beholden to an array of dated indirect instruments that calibrate self-reported student intellectual growth. When students are asked to rate generic questions such as “my study abroad experience allowed me to increase my empathy toward the host culture,” quite impressive would be the honest students who replied that their study abroad experience only served to heighten their sense of ethnocentrism and that they failed to ever reach a stage where they could seek to understand an event or issue through their host community’s eyes.

While one assumes that student responses are well intentioned, the reliability of such self-reported data is intrinsically problematic. Upon what direct evidence can an institution claim its graduating students have truly become these heralded “global citizens”? Pointing to students’ self-assessment does not suffice.

While relatively nascent, there have been encouraging efforts to analyze students’ intercultural growth abroad through observation and carefully defined writing assignments that enable educators to evaluate clear evidence of increased understanding of the host culture. Rather than brainstorming ways to further increase student participation, institutions of higher education must engage with the far more difficult task of articulating the real ways in which students have acquired not simply new knowledge but increased empathy for other communities.

Michael Ballagh is associate vice president of study abroad and international programs and the Ann E. Pitzer director of international programs at Pitzer College, which produced more Fulbright scholars than any other college in the liberal arts category for six consecutive years.


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