Freshmen at Goucher College in Towson, Md., will soon need passports. Beginning with this incoming class, the college is making study abroad a graduation requirement – a first in the nation, it claims. Would that more educators thought similarly.
In the old days (kids, that means when your parents went to college), foreign study was often for language majors. They packed their bags for a junior year in Europe and lost themselves in the classics and the experience of being overseas.
Nothing wrong with that, except the world is so much wider now. Business has gone truly global. The workplace is far more culturally diverse. And if ever there were a reason to understand the international scene and learn another language, 9/11 is it.
Study abroad is no longer a matter of individual growth, but of national strategic importance. Americans can't expect to lead the world unless they understand it – and not just the charming parts. Neither can they understand it until they grasp how others view the US. As Sanford Ungar, president of Goucher, told high school seniors this year: "There is a vast and disappointing gap between the America we have imagined and the America that is so widely perceived abroad."
The trend in study abroad is encouraging, and many schools, from powerhouse Georgetown University to lesser known Arcadia University, have invested in such programs. Since the academic year of 2000-01, the number of American college and university students studying outside the US has grown by nearly 20 percent, according to the Institute of International Education. A record number are enrolled in such programs and are studying foreign languages. They're also diversifying their choices, with two hot destinations being China and India – both countries with strong economic ties to the US.
Still, the numbers are relatively small. In 2003-04, the latest year for which data is available, 191,321 American students studied in other countries. That's roughly 1 percent of the total undergraduate student body.
And yes, more students are setting their sights outside of Europe (study in China was up 90 percent in 2003-04; in the Middle East, 62 percent; in Africa, 18 percent; in Latin America, 9 percent). These are regions of surging populations, and of environmental, economic, and political urgency. But again, the numbers of students studying there are small, and 61 percent prefer Europe.
It's not that undergraduates have no interest in distant lands. Polling shows that more people enter college expecting to go abroad than actually do. But they face barriers: rigidities in curriculum requirements, lack of support from administrators and faculty, and time and money constraints.
This summer, Sens. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois, and Norm Coleman (R) of Minnesota, introduced legislation to encourage 1 million students to study abroad annually in 10 years' time.
That's a worthy goal, but colleges and universities shouldn't wait for Congress. They can facilitate study abroad now by making it easier to transfer credits, and by offering shorter programs and financial aid. Enabling young Americans to learn about the world firsthand is in-step with a 21st-century education. It will benefit them and their country.