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Opening the doors on international education

For many American students, “study abroad” is, to use an overused word, “life-changing.” How many students choose to study overseas — and which countries they visit is an important piece of the puzzle of international education.

The latest data on numbers of students studying abroad from US institutions have just been released by the Institute for International Education in the Open Doors report and we can celebrate the increases in overall numbers as well as signs of the diversification of locations while also concentrating on the gaps.

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The 2013 report finds the number of US students studying abroad during the 2011-12 year reached a record high of 283,000 students, an increase of 3 percent over the previous year. By comparison, the number of international students at colleges and universities in the United States increased by 7 percent to a record high of 819,644 students in 2012-13.

The big picture in study abroad is a familiar one. Despite this growth, these figures still mean that only 1 percent of US-based undergraduates studied abroad for credit and for at least a summer or an academic quarter during 2011-12. Over half of American students choose to study in Western Europe, with much smaller numbers in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. The top destinations in 2011-12 were the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain and France. The close-up pictures are less familiar and somewhat troubling — even those students who choose to study outside of Europe tend to be concentrated in a few countries, and even particular cities within those countries. As educators, we want to expand the list of less traditional locations that students visit to widen their lens. But that begs the question — what do we mean by traditional locations and is it possible that we are just incorporating a few new places into the list of what are considered “traditional” locations?

Less than 5 percent of US students studying abroad go to Africa. Of the top 25 destinations, South Africa is the only African country represented. As interesting as South Africa is, it is quite unique in the African continent and no country can be used as representative of the continent as a whole. Even within South Africa, the majority of students flock to Capetown, a fascinating city, but one that does not represent all of South Africa. South Africa is a great place to study political transitions, but equally compelling stories of political change can be studied in places like Rwanda and Madagascar where there are very few study abroad opportunities. South Africa, Ghana, Kenya, and Tanzania together account for 70 percent of the students going to Africa, a continent of 55 countries.

Similarly, in Asia, most students gravitate toward East Asia (South Korea, China, and Japan), neglecting possibilities like Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, as well as the fascinating countries of Central Asia such as Mongolia. Mongolia, which is nestled between the superpowers of Russia and China, is arguably the best place to study the modern patterns of geopolitics and resource extraction. Current interest in India as study abroad location has been greatly affected by the news coverage of sexual assaults, yet the country remains one of the biggest and most interesting economies and societies of the world, where many American students could, with proper orientation and oversight, have a successful experience.

Latin America presents a different profile. While six countries are in the top 25 (Costa Rica, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Ecuador and Peru), given the growing Hispanic population in the U.S. and the growth in the numbers of Spanish speakers, it is understandable that there would be this level of interest. Again, however, where is the diversity of countries –Nicaragua, Paraguay, and Venezuela – that could complicate our understanding of this vast region?

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The Arab Spring brought attention to the Middle East and North Africa, yet no country with a majority of Arabic speakers is on the list of top 25. While Jordan and Israel account for the majority of students, numbers in North Africa and the Middle East are down overall, including locations like Morocco and Egypt where Arabic language instruction is well-developed. There are still many fascinating understudied countries in the region, such as Tunisia, a country with an important role as the birthplace of the Arab Spring and the long history of Mediterranean cultures — shouldn’t this also attract more students?

So what accounts for these patterns? Some originate from superficial coverage in our media of the diversity of these continents. Stories too often focus only on poverty, terrorism, and health problems and do not educate average Americans about the range of realities abroad. For example, when a mall in Nairobi is tragically attacked, many Americans assume all of Africa is unsafe. Another contributing factor is that American universities rely on long-standing relationships with their university partners in East Asia and Europe. Today, opportunities exist for students to have a very in-depth academic experience in many parts of the world, whether at a university or in a field study program. Encouraging students to get outside of the major cities, and interact with average citizens with differing perspectives, will surely open our students’ eyes to the complexities of our current global system. They will not find themselves surrounded by other Americans in these places.

Why is this important? As our students prepare for careers in our globalized economy, they need a more nuanced understanding of the world and its many sources of dynamism and innovation. While studying abroad is a good thing to do no matter where a student goes, we are arguing that students can have a richer experience in countries not typically considered for a semester abroad. A deeper appreciation of these places may well give students the experience and insights they will need for international and professional collaboration in the future.

As educators, we need to expand our own ideas of the possibilities for our students and ourselves and be willing to examine our biases about appropriate venues for our students and their learning. We need to change common American understanding of these regions as monolithic, with stereotypes based on the few, often negative, news reports originating from these limited sites. In 1995 no one would have believed you could study abroad in Serbia or Kosovo. How many years will it take until Iran or Afghanistan makes the top 25?

Priscilla Stone is vice provost and Laurie Black is dean for external relations of The School for International Training Study Abroad.

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