SPECIAL REPORT: INTERNATIONAL EDUCATION
Perhaps surprisingly, eight months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, college students nationally seem more interested than ever in overseas study. At colleges large and small, public and private, educators eagerly welcome the heightened interest. Many had feared collapse of study abroad programs as images of hijacked airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon played constantly on TV. Educators braced themselves for students already overseas clamoring to come home, as well as students here withdrawing their applications or not bothering to apply. And in fact, some educators saw a small drop in U.S. students going abroad for the current spring semester.
However, those involved in international education now say they are swamped with applications and inquiries for study abroad programs for this summer and fall semester. Nationally, statistics won’t be available until the fall, but “at worst, we’re holding steady, and at best, we’re rising,” says Dr. Victor Johnson, associate executive director for public policy at NAFSA, the Association of International Educators.
Why? Doesn’t the specter of uncertainty, that life can end amid hatred and instantaneous violence, deter students from venturing past this nation’s borders?
Johnson and others say no. In fact, the terrorist attacks have, if anything, sparked an intellectual curiosity among college students about other nations and cultures, other people and their beliefs.
“Students wonder what is the perception of us abroad,” says Connie Perdreau, former NAFSA president and director of the Office of Education Abroad at Ohio University. “They wonder how they can learn more about global politics. They want to know why we were attacked on Sept. 11. And in some cases they wonder, where is Afghanistan?” At Perdreau’s school, 463 students are now overseas, marking a 39 percent jump from a year ago. And higher education institutions around Ohio have seen similar increases, Perdreau says.
That has been echoed around the country, says Hey-Kyung Koh, program officer of the higher education resource group of the Institute of International Education (IIE). “The events of Sept. 11 were certainly horrible events, but those events actually piqued interest among college students, and in that way, had a positive effect among students,” says Koh, editor of the IIE Open Doors report, a statistical analysis of the field. “They now know they cannot live in an isolated world.”
This fall at Michigan State University, for instance, officials expect to at least match, and possibly top, the 2,000 students studying abroad during the 2000-2001 academic year, says Kathleen Fairfax, director of MSU’s Office of Study Abroad. MSU is considered one of the leaders nationally among large, public institutions sending students to foreign countries. “We now send four times what we did a decade ago,” she says.
Meanwhile, at Iowa’s private Grinnell College, near Des Moines, a record 250 applications already have been approved for students to go abroad this fall, says Richard Bright, director of Off-Campus Study. Grinnell enrolls about 1,300 students. At least half of its sophomores study overseas. “I think students see home as not necessarily the safest place to be,” Bright says. “They’re not so anxious to stick close to home.”
Furthermore, faculty seem just as eager to travel abroad, experts say. For instance, 11 faculty members attended a seminar in southern India earlier this semester, despite publicity over the slaying of U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan, says Karen Jenkins, president of Brethren Colleges Abroad, a secular provider of international education programs and activities. That reassures educators because a lack of faculty support could surely sound a death knell for these programs.
“There has been a renewed commitment by faculty stressing the importance of global education,” Jenkins says. “People in higher education have been forced to ask themselves what we are training our young people for? It’s quite clear that no place is totally safe, including this country. Yet global understanding really does affect our national security.”
Deterrents to Studying Abroad
That’s not to say last September’s terrorist attacks had absolutely no effect. Indeed, many educators say that right after the attacks, a few students either returned to the United States or, if they were preparing to go abroad later in September, changed their minds, although exact numbers are not known.
And at some universities, the economic downturn also was a factor in not studying abroad. For example, the University of Texas at Austin saw a first-time drop in participants for the current spring semester.
Officials there blame the 15 percent drop on last-year’s dot-com crash in technology-heavy Austin; last fall’s Houston-based Enron’s meltdown and bankruptcy; plus the trickle-down effects on so many other industries. “We had students who work part-time when they’re here, but if they’re abroad, they give up those jobs, so that would have been even less family income,” says Dr. Ivy McQuiddy, director of UT’s Study Abroad Program. “Some who applied for this spring, deferred. Their parents thought it better for them to stay here.”
But neither violence nor financial uncertainty have extinguished students’ interest — and sometimes determination — in educating themselves abroad.
The University of California, for example, last month suspended its study abroad programs in Israel indefinitely and recalled its 27 students. The decision came amid an escalation of violence in the Middle East and coincided with a State Department warning asking U.S. citizens not to travel to Israel.
But of the 27 UC students in Israel, 16 planned to stay in Israel anyway and finish their studies. In order to remain in Israel, those students were withdrawing from UC and enrolling at universities there, according to a UC spokesman. UC officials will work with those students for possible re-admission to UC if they return to the States, the spokesman says.
Meanwhile, the other 11 UC students either had returned to the United States or were preparing to leave Israel. While the situation differs from institution to institution in the United States, UC is one of the most recent to put its Israel program on hold until the political situation stabilizes.
A Healthy Future
Indeed, if terrorist attacks and State Department warnings don’t deter students, that only can portend a healthy future for study abroad programs. “I certainly don’t think it’s running in the opposite direction,” says Grinnell’s Bright. “If the Sept. 11 attacks increased interest in international affairs, then students going overseas will come back, tell their peers about what they learned, and inspire them to go.”
And, the multicultural experience can benefit even the most ethnically diverse U.S. campuses, educators agree. The University of Houston, for example, sent 3,010 students abroad during the 1999-2000 academic year, according to the IIE Open Doors report. UH currently enrolls 33,007 students, with 41 percent White, 18 percent Asian, 17 percent Hispanic, 14 percent Black, 9 percent international and 1 percent American Indian.
Dr. Pedro Gutierrez, former director of the UH summer program in Spain, laughingly recalls how one student marveled that walking and taking the bus seemed “more human” in that country than the car-dependent habits in Houston. “Studying abroad is the acquisition of another way to see life,” says Gutierrez, an associate professor of Spanish. “The tragedy of Sept. 11 has put a light on the issue. Instead of closing doors, it has opened doors.”
That underscores the importance of ensuring student safety and well-being while abroad at all times, says Jerry Wilcox, director of UT-Austin’s International Office. The largest singly accredited university nationally, UT sent 4,320 students abroad in the 1999-2000 school year. Officials there expect to match, or possibly top that this fall semester.
“Nothing has changed since Sept. 11,” Wilcox says. “Sept. 11 was a wake-up call to the public, and possibly to the news media. Study abroad programs are under the same rigor now as before Sept. 11. We look at parts of the world that aren’t on the front page of the day’s newspaper, or the top of the 6 o’clock news. We deal with protecting our students from earthquakes, volcano eruptions and hurricanes all the time, not to mention the other environmental, political, media and education crises overseas. That’s part and parcel of studying abroad.”
Last August, UT officials decided not to send students to the University of Haifa or elsewhere in Israel, Wilcox says. However, UT did receive three University of Haifa students as originally planned under the exchange, Wilcox says, adding that like at other U.S. schools, UT officials will reinstate study abroad programs in Israel when the violence subsides.
“You cannot learn the country — any country — and have the whole experience when your safety is compromised,” Wilcox says. “I don’t want to kid around about it.”
So with no worries about flagging interest in studying overseas, educators can instead turn their attention to issues such as how to get more minorities into study abroad programs; how to make international education a more integral component of undergraduate education; and how to better fund programs.
NAFSA’s Johnson says his organization is forming a task force of educators and others to determine ways to better promote study abroad opportunities. U.S. lawmakers already have passed a measure creating the Gilman International Scholarships, which will provide some federal monies for financially disadvantaged students to study overseas. An American Council on Education survey showed that 75 percent of adults agreed college students should have a study abroad experience — yet barely 1 percent went abroad this academic year.
Perdreau and other longtimers in international education wish they could make study abroad a required aspect of the undergraduate curriculum. Study abroad already is required for certain academic fields, such as the international studies major at Ohio University, Perdreau says. “As students bring ideas back, the better educators we become,” she says.
But any glimmer of hope relies on making study abroad financially affordable for all college students. And international education already jockeys for monetary scraps as donors are more likely to make gifts financing new law schools and science buildings, or endowed chairs. Sometimes to the outsider, study abroad seems like a luxury.
Even at MSU, a pioneer in international education, there currently are no endowed scholarships for study abroad, Fairfax says. That’s quite a hurdle at a school where the president has stated that by 2006, he wants 40 percent of students to have had a study abroad term. “Study abroad is such a relatively new phenomena,” Fairfax says. “I don’t think the early generation of people who studied abroad are in CEO positions yet, because if they were, they would not only understand how it changed their lives, but also what it does for students today.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com