More Students Taking Advantage of Study-abroad Opportunities

Although the number of American students studying abroad dipped in 2008-09 for the first time in many years, a new survey conducted by the Institute of International Education has found that it’s back on the rise. “Open Doors 2010,” which the Institute released Monday, is based on responses from approximately 3,000 colleges and universities and includes the most recent figures available for American students studying abroad (2008-09) and international students in the U.S. (2009-10).

Funded by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the survey also found that the number of minority students seeking international educational experiences also is on the rise, which can be attributed at least in part to the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program.

“Participation in the Gilman Program from African-American, Latino and Asian communities is two to three times greater than participation in other U.S. study-abroad programs,” said Ann Stock, assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs. “Nearly half of the Gilman scholars are first-generation college students.” Overall, minorities comprise 35.6 percent of the students in higher education but only 19.5 percent of students studying abroad.

A Gilman scholarship enabled Taurean Barnwell, a 2006 international business graduate from the University of South Florida, to spend a semester in Japan. Before this experience, Barnwell was shy and wary of new, particularly foreign, experiences. But he says Japan changed his life and his self-esteem so much that he returned there after graduation to teach English. Two months ago, he became a diplomatic assistant at the Japanese embassy in Washington.

The survey found that the biggest increase, however, came from Chinese students studying in the United States. In 2009-10, that number soared by 30 percent and Chinese students represent about 19 percent of the 690,923 international students in the U.S. They are followed by India and South Korea, which account for 15 and 10 percent, respectively, of international students in the U.S. And while there also was a double-digit increase in the number of students coming from Saudi Arabia, the number of students from Japan declined by 15 percent. According to State Department figures, international students in the U.S. added $20 billion to the nation’s economy last year. According to the survey, 31 percent of the responding institutions said the increases are due to active recruitment efforts, the growing visibility and reputation of U.S. campuses abroad and increased linkages with universities in other countries.

American students studying abroad have begun to expand their horizons. Their top five destinations are the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, France and China, and 14 of the top 25 destinations are outside of Europe. There has been a double-digit increase in the number of students choosing to study in Argentina (15 percent), Peru (32 percent), South Africa (12 percent) and South Korea (29 percent).

The top five fields of study for American students abroad during the 2008-09 academic year were the social sciences (20.7 percent), business/management (19.5 percent), humanities (12.3 percent), fine or applied arts (7.3 percent) and physical/life sciences (7.3 percent). The percentage of Americans studying engineering and math/computer science were much lower, at 3.1 and 1.6 percent, respectively. By contrast, the percentage of international students in the U.S, studying engineering and math/computer science was 18.4 and 8.8 percent.

According to Alina Romanowski, a deputy assistant secretary at the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, vibrant, international educational exchanges is an economic and a leadership imperative.

“American students need to have a better and deeper understanding of the world and they do that by traveling overseas or by experiencing someone else’s culture at home by opening their homes, their institutions and their experiences,” she said. “When we look at how we are going to improve opportunities for seeking global solutions, we’re not going to find them all by ourselves. The more people we can bring into the tent to find solutions to global problems, the better off we’re going to be.”