Commentary: The Study Abroad Advantage

Luis Martinez is assistant dean of admissions at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. Luis Martinez is assistant dean of admissions at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.

Today’s globalized economies and societies require leaders able to embrace cross-cultural differences. Our students should no longer expect to impact a modern workforce without exposure to customs outside the United States. Study abroad, more than ever, is vital in our effort to prepare college students for the demands of careers in an ever-increasing number of fields.

Among the 260,327 students who studied abroad for credit in the 2008-09 academic year, 80.5 percent were White, according to a 2010 Open Doors report by the Institute of International Education. Minority students in higher education must not overlook the value of studying abroad and should begin enhancing their college education by studying in a foreign country for at least one term before graduation. Doing so will contribute to their satisfaction as undergraduates and advance their search for meaningful careers.

Employers are always looking for talents and characteristics that set candidates apart. The modern job market has witnessed study abroad emanating as a differentiating factor. Whether a student has done research at the London School of Economics or taken anthropology courses in Australia, one thing is apparent: He has displayed initiative that has led to an increased understanding of the world. For an employer, the qualified candidate who can articulate the benefits of a term away in a manner that aligns him with potential responsibilities is a gem.

In many cases, these applicants are more culturally aware and possess the adventurous spirit that lends to the productive, creative thinking necessary to excel in any organization or company. Graduate, medical, and law school committees also look favorably upon experiences abroad. The more incoming students with a broad scope of their discipline as it exists within an international framework, the better.

Retention numbers are markedly influenced by experiences off campus. At times, we fail to realize how wearing consecutive semesters of rigorous coursework can be, especially if a student is studying in an environment opposite from that in which she grew up. The prospect of going abroad can motivate a student and invigorate her in extraordinary ways.

Upon return, rejuvenated students with newfound passions infuse the college community with fresh energy. Many see improvements in their grades and feel they have more to contribute to discussions in and outside the classroom. This can create an unparalleled sense of belonging. Faculty members often comment on how off-campus experiences have affected their students and how the experiences can contribute to the learning process of a young person.

Diversity plays a fundamental role in the education of our young adults. It fosters debate, generates mutual respect, and provides perspectives otherwise unfamiliar to students hailing from different areas of the world. Learning that takes place through dialogue can be just as pivotal to a group as lectures from a professor. Can a classroom really expect to generate a rewarding discussion about the theory of art, behavioral psychology, or the logistics of government without the viewpoints of the skilled musician from the inner city or the talented actress from suburbia? The same idea applies to learning that is done overseas; however, diversity is increased exponentially.

Take the urban musician or suburban actress and mix in discoveries gathered in Argentina or Kenya. The conversation becomes even more vibrant. As a result, the enrichment of character and voice can be profound. Time and time again, we witness personal metamorphoses in our students frequently returning to campus. These students are more mature, confident and prepared to lead.

The key to increasing the number of minority students going overseas should focus on mentoring relationships between students of color. There needs to be an effort to educate freshmen about benefits, affordability, resources and challenges associated with off-campus study. Organizing upperclassmen who are nuanced in these areas is critical. Pairing returning students with underclassmen spurs discussion about program locations, sights seen and lessons learned. In addition, older students can help veer new students from making potential mistakes. If a freshman keeps getting sick in laboratories at the sight of frog blood, maybe remaining on a pre-med track isn’t the best idea if she has a secret love for architecture and speaks fluent French.

As students mature and become mentors, they will find a way to give back to their community and, in the process, have the opportunity to establish a greater presence on campus. Through exchange within our own institutions we can generate exchange globally and ensure that underrepresented students have the same access to the transformative life experience so many undergo through studying abroad. D

— Luis Martinez is assistant dean of admissions at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.