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Study Abroad: A 21st Century Perspective - Volume 1

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Globalization and the new imperative for study abroad by John G. Sommer
Former Dean, Academic Studies Abroad School for International Training

Study abroad lore is replete with references to European wanderers since the Middle Ages and, more recently, to the American "grand tour" and "finishing school' traditions of the twentieth century. Given the U.S. history of early colonization by Europeans, followed by continuing immigration from that continent, it is hardly surprising (and certainly not a bad thing) that many young Americans wished to discover their roots, to pay homage to the Mother Continent's high culture. Early study abroad's driving force was largely cultural.

By the end of World War II, however, the United States emerged as one of two global superpowers, and by 1990, as the world's pre-eminent power. American influence over virtually every facet of global life, and death, is now undisputed. The question is whether the U.S., and its citizens, are qualified and prepared to play such an wesome role. In this context, study abroad's contribution takes on vastly increased importance.

Some 30 years ago, during the height of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, I found myself engaged in a major foundation-sponsored effort to strengthen international studies in American universities. It was striking to note, whether coincidental or not, that virtually the only Asian countries for which there was then no real area studies expertise were the only two in which the post-World War II United States had engaged in combat: Korea and Viet-Nam. Indeed, recently published analyses of policy-makers at the time, most notably Robert S. McNamara with respect to Vietnam, have concluded that at the root of that tragedy, and a major cause of it, lay ignorance. In the 1990s, a similar dearth of knowledge was held in large part accountable for U.S. casualties and the exacerbation of conflict in Somalia. Imagine if some of our policy-makers had studied abroad in Korea, Vietnam, and Somalia. Might the course of those conflicts been different?

Beyond war and peace are a host of other world problems that threaten human survival across national boundaries. Consider, for example, the huge environmental threat to our planet growing out of continually expanding population and uncontrolled pollution in many parts of the world. According to the 1999 United Nations Human Development Report, a quarter of the world's fish stocks have been depleted or are in danger of being so since 1970, with another 44% currently being fished at their biological limit; forests too are disappearing at unbelievable rates. Consider, too, the health threats to every citizen of the world as long as disease exists in any corner of our planet; the pandemic spread of AIDS, and the return of malaria and TB to the United States are but a few immediate examples. Consider nuclear proliferation which, notwithstanding the end of the Cold War, continues apace.

Consider the humanitarian dimensions of globalization. What moral person can fail to be shocked by the inexcusable gap between the world's rich and poor?a gap that globalization both exacerbates and has the means to diminish. The above-mentioned U.N. report indicates that out of a world consumption bill of $24 trillion, the richest fifth of the world's people consumes 86% of all goods and services, while the poorest fifth consumes just 1.3%. Who could wish to live in such a world? And at an even more practical level, who can expect such an untenable situation to endure without enormous costs in instability and conflict?

Alongside the globalization of forces of destruction is the globalization of communications and business. The extraordinary expansion of the internet and of international trade has further demolished national boundaries and essentially eliminated the distinction between what is national as opposed to international. These trends are irreversible and largely beyond the capacities of governments to stem them. Whether they will prove, on balance, to be positive forces for human advancement will depend on the knowledge and sensitivity we bring to bear.

Knowledge of all parts of the world is indeed growing, as increasing numbers of Americans travel, live, and work around the world through the Peace Corps and other government programs, U.N. and related multilateral organizations, NGOs, the media, academia, and tourism. Americans are being increasingly exposed not only to Europe, but also to Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Although these latter continents are often referred to as the "Third World," a more accurate descriptor would be the "Two-thirds World," given the preponderance of the globe's population, and inevitably future influence, that lives there. But the number of Americans acquainted with these areas remains minimal.

Given what ought to be the overwhelming importance of study abroad throughout all regions of the world, one might reasonably ask what are the impediments to seeing much more of it?

First, a little current context: In 1981, a mere 3,400 American students were reported studying in "third world" countries, with one-third of these in Israel and Mexico; Indonesia, a country with twice the population of any European country, had no study abroad program at all. In 1984, a group of study abroad leaders convened at the School for International Training in Vermont concluded that the situation demanded a national effort if Americans were to understand, let alone be knowledgeable enough, to lead in the evolving world order. That same year, NAFSA: Association of International Educators established a Whole World Committee mandated to correct the situation.

According to the most recent Institute for International Education data, some 114,000 students reportedly studied abroad for credit in 1998-99, nearly double the 62,000 reported a decade earlier (though part of the increase is probably explained by improved data-gathering). The percentage going to third world countries has grown significantly since then, too, from some 10% to closer to 30% in 1998-99. Most recent one-year increases for Latin America, Africa, and Asia, are 25%, 20%, and 13%, respectively. While the leading fields of study for Americans abroad are social sciences and humanities (35%), IIE notes that business and management is second (with 16%) and increasing as a proportion since 1990 hardly surprising given the extraordinary growth in global business. Enrollment trends are improving, in short, but remain totally inadequate to the needs of a global society.

The impediments to increasing numbers seem to revolve primarily around lack of awareness of opportunities, lack of a tradition in study outside Europe (and now perhaps Australia), lack of sufficient home institution faculty and administration support, perceived additional cost, health and safety concerns, and parental nervousness. While some of these are, in fact, legitimate issues, most can be addressed with facts. For example, travel to Asia and Africa is often (though not always) higher than to Europe, but the in-country costs are invariably less, with the result that student fees are often lower in such locations. Further, in my own experience with thousands of School for International Training students, and while careful attention must be paid to pre-trip vaccinations and constant health precautions, students who follow the do's and don'ts rarely encounter serious problems. Similarly, while white foreigners, in particular, tend to stand out in these parts of the world as wealthy and therefore desirable targets, thorough and repeated orientation, and following the rules, reduces the risks to manageable proportions.

While the media has become a popular whipping boy in recent years, it is indeed true that much of the fear of third world destinations is based on prominent news reports that are often misleading, or at least are interpreted in misleading ways. I can hardly count the number of times that understandably nervous parents have called wondering if it was safe for their child to go to Tanzania when students were demonstrating in Kenya, or to Bali during riots in Jakarta, Indonesia. Realization that apt comparisons might be between Florida and Washington, DC in one case, or Chicago and Montreal in the other comes slowly when our own education system within the U.S. has been so deficient in inculcating knowledge of geography and global realities. This may take a generation to change as a critical mass of study abroad participants and others return from international experiences, join teaching and related professions, and/or become parents themselves.

But we cannot wait for the next generation. The world is too fast-changing. U.S. security (or perceived security) needs in Korea, Vietnam, Somalia, or, more currently, in the Middle East and former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, must be dealt with as they arise. Although it would be too facile to suggest that the answer is simply study abroad, this means of creating a more informed citizenry and cohort of public policy-makers is certainly part of the answer, along with improved international education on U.S. campuses themselves. In the world of business, successful entrepreneurs know that the "two-thirds" (or more) world is key to increasing corporate profits and thus U.S. and worldwide prosperity. The oft mocked exporter of the Chevrolet Nova model must have turned in his grave (or in its lifetime equivalent) when he learned that in Latin America "no va" means "doesn't go"; had he studied abroad in South America, he'd have picked a more positive brand name. To be successful in international business (as most business now is), a study abroad experience is most helpful. Indeed, this very point is increasingly made by business leaders who see education as a sine qua non in forging forward-looking strategies for economic, technological, and trade development.

The above are a few of the most immediately pragmatic reasons for diversifying study abroad throughout the world, beyond the traditional Western European sites. But there is a more human one as well. An experience in a third world setting is especially meaningful and exciting. It opens up and helps prepare for career possibilities, while also stimulating the intellect and one"s appreciation of life itself. The fact that these countries are so different culturally from the United States poses a starker contrast with our familiar ways and thus a more striking challenge by which to understand our own society, values, assumptions, and larger world role. While living in a traditional European setting exposes us to new sights and smells, new customs and unknowns, living in third world countries provides an even greater range of experience. Only by understanding the variations among the world's peoples their traditions, values, and aspirations can we perceive the common humanity which unites all societies. Indeed, the U.S. itself is increasingly populated with people from third world countries a majority is expected to be so well within this century who are enriching our culture and changing the very fabric of our society in ways we need to better understand.

At this outset of a new century, the imperatives for considering the whole world as a stage for study abroad are just that imperative for realizing a world of peace, justice, sustainable development, and prosperity, and for enriching our own social and cultural lives and those of our fellow humans. For their fates, around the globe, are inextricably linked to our own.

Next article: The Impact of Study Abroad on the College Curriculum by Brenda S. Robinson

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