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Stepping Up To Study Abroad

LaTasha Crutcher was a sophomore at Howard University when she saw the flier on a hallway bulletin board on campus. It was promoting opportunities to study abroad, something Crutcher, who grew up in housing projects in Buffalo, N.Y., had never seriously considered.

Fast forward nearly two years. Crutcher, now a senior at Howard, is a walking advertisement for studying abroad. The semester she spent in Spain last spring was her first trip outside the United States. The 21-yearold administration of justice major immersed herself in Spanish language studies, culture, literature and history. Now, she feels more confident than ever about herself and feels she has an edge in her ability to compete in the job market or for a spot in graduate school after graduation.

“I would recommend study abroad to every student. It opens up your eyes. You learn a lot more about yourself … . We can’t be leaders in a global community with just an American point of view,” Crutcher says.

“I changed more in six months in Spain than in the entire three years I had spent at Howard,” adds Whitney Hampton, a 21- year-old senior from New Orleans. “I’m more assertive now. I speak my mind. I’m not afraid to do things. You can’t learn about yourself if you aren’t taken out of your comfort zone. I realized I was out of my comfort zone when I stepped off the plane (in Spain).”

At a time when American businesses and government agencies are scrambling for new hires with a better sense of the world, Crutcher and a handful of Howard classmates are a minority within a minority of American college students. They have expanded their academic pursuits — and chances for advancement in the future — by spending time outside of the United States in a formal academic environment. They are learning other languages, about other cultures and seeing the world from other perspectives.

“Study abroad experience in an applicant is valuable since, as a global firm, we like our employees to be knowledgeable about not only local matters, but also about other places and cultures in which we participate as a business,” says Thomas A. Russo, vice chairman of Lehman Brothers.

Mark McKeen, talent acquisition manager for General Motors, says study abroad is “distinctly an advantage for a student. The global perspective is important. It shows the student has an appreciation for different cultures and can build good, strong relationships with other people in other parts of the world.” McKeen offered as an example GM’s engineering department, which is spread around the globe and works 24 hours a day, employing people of various cultures and backgrounds in different parts of the world.

According to the latest figures available in the annual “Open Doors” report by the Institute of International Education (IIE), study abroad was pursued by more than 200,000 American students enrolled in American colleges and universities during the 2004-05 school year. That’s up from roughly 85,000 in 1994-95, which is an increase of 144 percent in 10 years. However, the figure only represents 1 percent of all American students attending institutions of higher learning.

In contrast, the latest figures available in the “Open Doors” study indicate that 564,766 foreign students studied in the United States during the 2005-06 school year. The number has run above 500,000 per year for several years and runs true historically. Twenty years ago, 343,777 foreign students were enrolled in colleges in the United States, compared to only 48,000 Americans studying abroad.

For students of color, the study abroad numbers are even smaller, according to the IIE. Only 6.3 percent of the Americans studying abroad in 2004-05 were Asian, 5.6 percent Hispanic, 3.5 percent African- American, 1.2 percent multiracial and .4 percent American Indian.

Not only do fewer Americans study abroad than foreign students in this country, but the students who come to the United States to study stay longer, sometimes for an entire undergraduate program. The average stay abroad of a U.S. student is eight weeks, according to the “Open Doors” study. “

Top administrators haven’t bought in. They don’t see it as a priority. Of course it should be,” says Betty Aikens, director of the study abroad program at the Ralph J. Bunche Center for International Studies at Howard, explaining why so few schools, regardless of racial heritage, are aggressively engaged in study abroad efforts.

Confronting Financial Barriers

Once considered a luxury for affluent White college students, study abroad has been recast in recent years by business, academia and policymakers. Today, they consider it essential to the ability of the United States and its public and private enterprises to function effectively in an increasingly global society.

“On the international stage, what nations don’t know can hurt them,” the federal Commission on the Abraham Lincoln Study Abroad Fellowship Program wrote to Congress in a 2005 report. “Making study abroad the norm and not the exception can position this and future generations of Americans for success in the world in much the same way that [the] establishment of the land-grant university system and enactment of the GI Bill helped create the ‘American century,’” the commission reported.

The commission, which issued a subsequent report earlier this year, proposed the government adopt programs that would boost the number of American students studying abroad to 1 million a year by 2016- 17. Congress has considered several pieces of legislation on the commission’s recommendations but has not taken final action on any.

“We are pretty far behind other countries in study abroad,” says Jason Fenner, research analyst for the Lincoln commission. “There are a large number of students who say they want to study abroad but never do it,” says Fenner, adding that there are no hard studies on why. Anecdotal evidence suggests the small number stems from concerns about costs, fear of the unknown, whether study abroad will delay graduation and what kind of courses students can take.

Government support is considered key to moving the needle on study abroad, as it would be a major source of financial support for students just as it is with financial aid for basic studies in this country. At a time when more colleges and households are pinching pennies, a semester abroad can easily run $10,000 or more.

Today, study abroad programs run the gamut. The University of Minnesota, a longtime leader in study abroad programs, sends more than 1,000 students abroad each school year to more than 80 countries. The university considers the students ‘ambassadors’ for the United States and says its research has found study abroad students have a higher graduation rate.

At the other extreme, where most schools find themselves, a handful of students may go abroad for a few weeks of study. Historically Black colleges and universities, for the most part, fall into this group. Aside from Howard, Hampton University, Morehouse College, Spelman College and Xavier University of New Orleans study abroad efforts are quite small or non-existent at HBCUs.

“We don’t see (study abroad) as a luxury,” says Dr. Margery Ganz, director of the study abroad program at Spelman. The program, which sends about 50 students abroad each year, dates back to the 1950s. “We decided we had to do it,” says Ganz, echoing colleagues at other HBCUs with active programs.

Slowly, more schools are coming to the same conclusion. They are taking bold steps to make study abroad a reality and requirement for graduation. The most notable move in this direction was taken by Goucher College, a small liberal arts college in Baltimore, when it made a study abroad “international experience” a graduation requirement starting with the class of 2006. Despite speculation the move would dampen college applications, it did just the opposite. To help students meet the requirement, Goucher is awarding each student a $1,200 voucher to help pay study abroad expenses.

“Most of us have grown up in this country with an over-inflated sense of America’s centrality,” says Sanford J. Ungar, president of Goucher. “We are so far behind. It’s a disservice for young people coming out of school to believe America tells everybody else what to do and it’s fine. I don’t think you can call anyone educated without knowing about another culture.”

Money is the big hurdle, however, even where college leaders recognize the importance of study abroad to the development of a well-rounded student in today’s world. Crutcher learned that when she started inquiring about that glossy flier at Howard. The study abroad price tag — nearly $15,000 — threw her for a loop, she says. Undaunted, she spent a year “studying how to get money,” she recalls, including countless visits to the office of study abroad for help and advice. Crutcher wrote lots of letters and made lots of phone calls. In the end, she got the money needed, including $8,000 from Howard, for her semester abroad, plus more than $5,000 for her incidental expenses. What was the most important thing Crutcher learned from her experience? “It made you realize the United States is not the world,” she says.

–Reginald Stuart

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