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Report, Educators Call for More Study Abroad Programs

Report, Educators Call for More Study Abroad Programs
Lack of global knowledge threatens the nation’s security, future, experts sayWASHINGTON
Americans don’t know enough about the world in which they live, according to a new report by an international-education task force, which calls for a “national effort” to reverse the trend. The report says higher education is vital to the effort and that more students must spend time studying abroad. If Americans don’t expand their global knowledge, educators say, the United States stands to lose much — including the war on terror.According to the Institute for International Education (IIE), participation in study abroad programs among American students has tripled during the last 15 years. IIE’s annual report, Open Doors 2003, says 160,920 U.S. students studied abroad for credit during the 2001-2002 school year. But NAFSA, a national association of international educators, says these numbers are a mere pittance.“Students who study abroad amount to barely more than 1 percent of the 8 million full-time and 5 million part-time undergraduates attending the 3,400 accredited U.S. colleges and universities,” says the report, which was compiled by NAFSA’s Strategic Task Force on Education Abroad. “Any way you look at it, the number is infinitesimal.”A number of barriers keep the number of American students studying abroad low, the report says, including stringent curricula, financial constraints, a lack of faculty participation and a failure to address the needs of nontraditional students, whose college enrollment numbers are rising.According to the report and members of the task force, these factors contribute to Americans’ lack of understanding about the world beyond the United States — an ignorance that became clear after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.“Since 9/11, it has become more and more clear that our country simply cannot afford to remain ignorant of the rest of the world. The stakes are too high,” says Dr. Richard W. Riley, former U.S. Secretary of Education and co-chair of the task force. “The generation that will lead our country tomorrow must receive an international education today. They must have opportunities to learn about other countries, other cultures and other points of view … from direct experience, as an integral part of their higher education.”Language barriers are especially problematic, Riley said.“There is a fallacy in this country that we don’t have to learn other languages because everyone else is learning English. That view profoundly misunderstands the value of foreign-language learning. We are, in many ways, blind to what is really going on in countries where we cannot communicate in their language.”According to a fall 2002 survey conducted by the Modern Language Association of America, 8.7 percent of all students in U.S. higher education study a foreign language — up from 7.5 percent in 1998. Spanish, French and German account for a majority of foreign-language enrollments, with 53 percent, 14 percent and 7 percent, respectively (see Black Issues, Dec. 4).While the numbers show improvement, educators say it’s not enough. So what can be done to turn things around? For starters, the report recommends the following:• President Bush and the U.S. Congress should establish a national policy on study abroad programs and provide financial support that will help make them possible;
• Governors and state legislatures need to adopt state policies supportive of international education and find ways to help students afford study abroad;
• Colleges and university presidents must encourage study abroad in all fields while helping make it more affordable and accessible;
• Private businesses and industry need to let schools know that students with international experience will be very valuable in the work force. They should give schools financial support and offer study abroad internships; and
• Accrediting agencies should rework their curriculum requirements to include “global competency.”The goal of these efforts would be to increase participation in study abroad programs, with 20 percent of American college graduates having studied abroad by 2010, and 50 percent having done so by 2040.Dr. Madaleine Green, vice president of the American Council on Education, said America would be better off if it met the goals of NAFSA’s report. Still, she said, nontraditional students, such as those at community colleges, will be hard pressed to find the time and money for studying abroad.“It’s hard. It’s not going to be realistic to expect 50 percent of community-college students to go abroad. It would be great, but I think it’s highly unlikely,” Green says. Green said shorter stints to countries closer to America would be good alternatives to in-depth programs. Dr. Victor Johnson, the associate executive director for public policy at NAFSA, agreed that shorter programs might work better for community-college students. After the students go, he said, they are likely to crave more experiences. “Once they realize they can do it and how valuable it is, they’ll be looking for other experiences and realizing they can go for longer times and to farther distances,” Johnson said.They key to making study abroad a reality for nontraditional students is a partnership between the federal government and the schools, he said.“There has to be a marriage between the resources of the government to help students go abroad and the efforts of the schools to help students understand this is an option for them and to make it as affordable for the student as possible,” he says.Green said schools can also address the problem by making international education available at home.“What are colleges doing in terms of curriculum, campus life, reaching out to the community where there are ethnic groups? You have some internationalization right here at home with first-generation immigrant groups. I think that’s the other part of internationalization which we shouldn’t forget about,” Green says.While educators differ on how best to make international education more of a priority, they agree that, absent reform, America is on shaky ground.“We have to get this right. By virtue of our power, the United States is the world’s leader. But we can’t lead a world that we don’t understand,” Riley says. “If we are to have any hope of living in safety and security — any hope of exercising our world leadership in the constructive manner to which we all aspire — then we have to take steps to understand the rest of the world better than we do.” By Kristina Lane

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