Off the Beaten Path
Studying abroad in ‘nontraditional’ locations
Centers of learning have been among the most enduring institutions common to people. Throughout the centuries, scholars have welcomed their colleagues from far-flung regions of the world. Ancient Egyptians, Chinese, Greeks and North Africans all held libraries in high esteem and promoted the exchange of scholarly information. Yet today, these same locations are not attracting large numbers of U.S. students and scholars. Western Europe continues to overshadow the rest of the world as a study abroad destination for American students.
Of the 143,590 U.S. students who studied abroad for academic credit during the 1999-2000 academic year, 62 percent went to Europe. Only 15 percent studied in Latin America, 6 percent in Asia, 5 percent in Australia and Oceania, with Africa and the Middle East each getting a little less than 3 percent of U.S. students. And the number of students going to the Caribbean barely registered.
Western Europe represents less than one fifth of the world’s people and a small part of the earth’s landmass. Students interested in studying in a nontraditional location have nearly the whole world to choose from. By going to nontraditional destinations, U.S. students and scholars will be able to observe striking contrasts between rich and poor, modern and traditional. They will live in countries and areas with cultures that are among the oldest in the world, have cradled the great religions of the world, and provided the basis for modern learning and technology. These nontraditional study abroad destinations can reveal the global interconnectedness of problems once thought to be local — from population growth to weapons of mass destruction. At the same time, students will be introduced to hospitality that can be overwhelming and extended families that embrace strangers like long-lost relatives.
At Florida A&M University, international programs deliberately are being developed to push students and faculty to destinations such as South Africa, Mexico and Cambodia. Dr. Jesse Lutabingwa, associate director of International Programs, says it is important to explore the diversity of experiences in other cultures.
“People are comfortable going to places where they find life easier and more predictable. Young people need to learn that while other places may not seem compatible, the differences are enriching,” Lutabingwa says.
Florida A&M also is collaborating with its host universities abroad to engage them in projects that will strengthen their institutional capacities.
“Florida A&M is a school that has extensive experience working with an underrepresented population,” says Lutabingwa, who was preparing to visit Mangosuthu Tecnikon in Durban, South Africa. “We think we are well-placed to assist schools abroad which, like Florida A&M, are working to provide services to those who have been disenfranchised. Going to nontraditional destinations is logical and appropriate since we have more in common than we are different.”
Olasope Oyelaran, associate professor of English and foreign languages and director of International Programs at Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina, says there are important social and political reasons for examining and studying in non-European countries.
“Virtually every European country has built and sustains its fortunes on one or another of the non-European regions of the world,” Oyelaran says. “It is very healthy for African Americans to experience the life and ambience — political, linguistic and intellectual of the other regions of the world.”
Oyelaran says such experiences “provide a robust confirmation that the European tradition and demographic groups of European descent do not and cannot account for everything attributable to the human genius. This awareness is also healthy for other Americans who do not count themselves as members of the minority.”
It is true that encouraging students to study outside of Europe may require additional work since there are fewer academic programs in nontraditional locations. And there may be some difficulty in persuading campus administrators and students’ families that such locations are suitable.
Since nontraditional locations usually are developing countries, Americans too often know very little except sensational and often unflattering news stories. For members of ethnic minority groups going to a nontraditional destination — an African American in China, a Korean American in Ecuador, or a Hispanic American in Japan — the perceived barriers may seem all the more complicated. But in these locations, students can study French in Morocco or Spanish in Peru. An understanding about the effects of colonialism can be understood best in Ghana or the Caribbean. Early Christianity, Islam, and Judaism all are found in the Middle East. The art collection at a campus or nearby museum may be excellent, but imagine students studying Chinese art in its intended lodgings — the Imperial Palace in Beijing.
Early planning is important for getting students abroad and even more so in nontraditional locations. Donya Eldridge, a sophomore at Dillard University in New Orleans, is planning to study in Sapporo, Japan, with Brethren Colleges Abroad next year. When asked if she was worried about being in a culture that is different from the United States, she replied, “I am excited about going to Japan and becoming fluent in the language. Since I plan to embrace the culture and the people, I am not worried about being accepted.”
As institutions of higher education seek opportunities for students and faculty to go abroad for academic purposes, it is time to critically examine the inclination to follow the majority who go to Western Europe and instead actively promote studying in, conducting research about, and living in the rest of the world.
— Karen Jenkins is president of Brethren Colleges Abroad.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com