An odd thing is happening on college campuses today. In an age of shaky finances and soaring student debt loads, to the point where many question the very liberal arts model, a new consensus is emerging to expand higher education in a very expensive way. Money be damned, a growing number of schools have begun to push studies abroad as a vital part of the college experience.
Even more exciting, at least among those of us who advocate travel as a valuable learning experience, it’s starting to work. According to the Association of International Educators, the number of students studying abroad is only going up.
Students are generally enthusiastic, no surprise when the prize is a trip to some of the world’s most exotic locations and dynamic cities. Getting buy-in from their parents, though, has always been something different. Travel has historically been a tough sell as part of the college experience, often striking parents as a way to subsidize booze-fueled shenanigans in the guise of higher education. (No new complaint.) American students’ notorious love of international drinking ages hasn’t helped that impression any, nor Hollywood’s cottage industry dedicated to vulnerable youths thrown at the hands of villains abroad.
So when students have called home asking for some extra cash to cover airfare for a summer on Santorini or a semester within driving distance of Machu Picchu, Mom and Dad have traditionally been reluctant. Today many have expected the spiraling costs of a college education to drive parents even further out of the travel business, not unreasonable given how many families have had to rely on financial aid simply to make tuition.
Yet the opposite has been happening, and a lot of that has had to do with the enthusiasm of employers. Today’s term abroad isn’t just about personal growth anymore but also about real, salable skills that students can use to market themselves in a still-tough job market.
That’s great for students, because the more opportunities they have to put some stamps in their passports, the better off they’ll be in the long run.
Yet one of the biggest questions remains how students can demonstrate the value of their time abroad once they’ve returned home. Despite increasing acceptance of this idea both in academia and employment, many students and international travelers in general are frustrated when it comes time to sell their experience on a resume.
It’s what Lisa Calevi of the University of Oregon’s Global Education Oregon program has called “the very timely question” for educators and any other advocates of long term travel.
“Today’s students are very pragmatic, and their education is costing them a small fortune," she said. "[But] studying abroad is not a luxury; it’s very much a part of a 21st century education. This is absolutely the question that professionals in the field are asking themselves, how do we get students to understand that there is an intrinsic value to studying abroad?”
Students should start with diversity.