Overseas study - an under-used option for US students

KAREN Kramer was a junior in 1965, when she left Stanford University's bucolic northern California campus for a year at her school's overseas study program in Austria.

But as it turned out, the change in settings wasn't all that great. ''In Austria we lived in a big villa with lovely gardens and swimming pools and were taught by American teachers,'' says Dr. Kramer. ''But there were no Austrians. It was hardly a cultural experience.''

Today Dr. Kramer is director of the university's session in Berlin - a program that reflects the evolution in Stanford's overseas programs specifically , and American college study-abroad programs in general.

''In Berlin we're increasingly associated with the Free University, where the students take courses in German from German instructors,'' she adds. ''And in order to get them in contact with the culture, we try either to house them with German students or in German families.''

Across the United States, the trend in study-abroad programs is toward more involvement with the people and institutions of the country visited, and toward a new flexibility in the kinds of courses followed and the amount of time spent abroad. The intent is to encourage more than just the language or international studies major to venture beyond the confines of American academia. The changes are also recognition that many of today's students are more sophisticated about foreign travel than were students 20 years ago.

''We've been moving away from the old enclave model for the past 10 years,'' says Mark Mancall, professor of history and director of Stanford's overseas studies programs. Instead of sequestering its students in chateaux and country manors, Stanford is now taking them out to what it hopes will be the real world. The program in England, for example, formerly housed in the Waldorf Astor family mansion at Clivedon, is just now moving to Oxford. ''The old system may have been appropriate for the 19th century,'' adds Professor Mancall, ''but it is utterly inappropriate for the 21st.''

Stanford students wishing to study abroad can now choose programs that go from one to three quarters and call for no prior foreign language study, or others that require up to two years. In some cases they may participate in internships with foreign companies.

''The traditional junior year abroad is not as popular as in the past,'' says William Leffland, dean of the International Affairs Center at Florida International University (FIU) in Miami. ''Students may not feel they can afford , either financially or in terms of career goals, a whole year away from their program at home, and they usually want the classes overseas to relate to their major.'' As a result, FIU students interested in England can choose between two summer programs in Cambridge or, beginning next January, a full-term program at Cambridge University.

At Brown University in Providence, R.I., there is a new emphasis on study abroad, with students there encouraged to test their independence and enterprise by enrolling, through Brown, in regular courses at universities abroad. Says John Eng-Wong, assistant dean of students and executive director of the school's Council for International Studies, ''Our thrust is to prepare the students before they go, but not to provide the support in the foreign country. We're sometimes asked, 'Who takes care of the kids?' And our response is that they take care of themselves - as most of today's students are pretty well able to do - or they shouldn't go.''

Yet in spite of the changes in study abroad programs - and the need, in the view of many college officials, for American students to know the world better - there is little indication that interest in studying overseas is growing significantly.

According to the Institute for International Education (IIE) in New York City , just over 30,500 Americans took part in US-college sponsored study-abroad programs in 1982 (the last year for which statistics are available), a slight decrease from the previous year's total. That figure does represent a sizable increase, however, from 1978, when just under 25,000 Americans studied abroad. (The figures do not include Americans enrolled in foreign-sponsored programs, summer programs, or those studying abroad independently.)

At Stanford, which has a policy of making study abroad possible for all students, between 35 and 40 percent of the undergraduates take part. Brown also reports high, and growing, participation in its programs. But, in general, career interests, lack of excitement about the outside world, and money are cited by administrators and faculty as reasons why more of the nation's 9.5 million undergraduates don't take advantage of study-abroad programs.

Another cause for concern, say some proponents of international study, is that Americans who do choose to study abroad continue to focus on Europe, despite the growing economic and strategic importance of Asia and the rest of the third world. According to IIE, 70 percent of Americans studying abroad through American-college-sponsored programs in 1982 went to Europe, about 7 percent went to Asia, 5 percent to Latin America, and less than 1 percent - 159 students - were reported in Africa.

''I'm rather pessimistic about the average American student's interest in the world,'' says Lee Zeigler, director of Stanford's Bechtel International Center. ''The pressures to succeed mitigate against it.'' Referring to study abroad, Mr. Zeigler adds, ''An awful lot of students just won't take the risk.''

Despite claims by a number of college officials that companies are increasingly looking for students with some international exposure, Mr. Zeigler says that, unfortunately, students' concerns are not wholly unjustified. ''The truth is that most companies are looking first and foremost for management skills or accounting abilities. I find very little interest in corporations in general for cross-cultural or overseas study experience.''

What's needed, say a number of academic leaders, is for students to look beyond their immediate goals to the day when, whether their careers called for it or not, they may wish they had taken advantage of opportunities to live abroad and experience another culture.

''I don't think we should insist on graduating from college in four years,'' says Chia-Wei Woo, president of San Francisco State University. ''Students in programs with rigorous requirements should consider extending their study by a semester or a year to allow for something like study overseas.''

According to Brown's Duncan Smith, associate dean for foreign studies, schools should tap returning American students as natural promoters of overseas programs. ''The missing link is what to do with these students once they come back, full of enthusiasm and often with a very changed view of the world. If we can bring them into the classroom to share what they've learned, I think we'll see their numbers grow.''

Thursday: foreigh students in the U.S.

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