Overseas Study Choices Send Students Packing

For a summer or a semester, more are flocking abroad to live and learn

Like many of the class of 1997, Denise Webster is assessing her college education and where it's going to take her. She says her "life-transforming" year in Aix-en-Provence, France, studying at the exclusive L'Institut d' Etudes Politique, was one of the highlights.

"Going abroad has made me more marketable because it shows initiative and leadership," says the graduate of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. "Not only did I increase my understanding of the French language, but I learned a new way of thinking. Both will be important for the global market place."

That marketplace is high on the minds of many young adults. Study abroad was once the province of a privileged few who typically went to Western Europe to study language. But that profile has changed. More students are exploring countries from Costa Rica to China. While for some it's a creative way to meet graduation requirements, others aim to lay the foundation for careers in fields such as international banking and engineering.

But whatever students' motives, many experts agree that travel can give them self-confidence and independence that will serve them well in the future.

"Study abroad is 'value added' to a student's college education. It gives life experience and also has career relevance," says Mark Holman, who recently completed a PhD on study-abroad programs.

It's clear many students agree. The number getting college credit for overseas study leapt 10 percent in the 1994-1995 school year. This increase has brought the number of students studying abroad to 84,000, compared with 48,500 nine years ago.

As a result, schools are scrambling to meet the demand. In addition to the traditional junior year abroad, they are offering shorter, more flexible programs. A semester is still the top choice. But 30 percent of college students are choosing a summer term sojourn. And many organizations are offering trips as short as two weeks.

Eastern Michigan University, in Ypsilanti, for example, offers cultural history tours of Europe and Asia in which students see 36 cities in nine countries, all in one semester. George Klein, director of the programs, says these interdisciplinary tours appeal to students interested in "the history of ideas and how they can be modified through time and through different cultures."

While traveling, students must keep up with a rigid schedule of exams and papers, he says, but they seem to learn the most from discussions with their professors in train compartments or on museum steps en route to different sites.

Amy Astle, who went on the Asian cultural history tour last spring, says the pace did not diminish her ability to understand the culture. She says her month-long rail trip around India was highly rewarding. "We weren't traveling first class or anything so it was a good way to see a less-developed country while still remaining comfortable, because we had three professors along with us." She says her days off were important for her to get away from the group and experience the countries on her own.

STUDENTS studying business administration are also finding it worthwhile to leave home. Lee Ann Grace, director of International Education at State University of New York College at Buffalo, says a student who studied business in the college's overseas program last year landed a job three days after graduation.

"The company was interested in penetrating the European market and he had the needed skills because of the classes he took in Amsterdam," she says.

"We increasingly hear corporate presidents saying, 'We really want people who have lived in another culture,' " says Peggy Blumenthal, vice president of Educational Services at the Institute of International Education in New York. "As American students and their parents become more convinced that career futures are going to be international ones, they are beginning to see the relevance of study abroad."

But leaving campus doesn't have to be a button-down experience. Steven Tash in Corona, Calif., helps students design "experiential" programs for credit. The trips include parasailing in Australia and exploring the rain forest in Costa Rica.

"There are so many things that can't be learned in the classroom," he says. He has students do "mini-ethnographies" in which they examine cultural events such as weddings or museum openings and write reports from the perspective of anthropologists. They must prove they've worked 45 hours for every three credits.

Credit, after all, is crucial. Bill Hoffa, who is currently writing a parents' guide to study abroad says students should check that they can receive credit from their home institutions. "If they don't get credit they don't get financial aid," he says. "Anyone who is serious about it [study abroad] as part of their career must work with their campus," he says.

Legally, federal aid can be used for study abroad as long as credit is being given by the home institution. Often financial aid from the home school can be increased to cover costs such as airfare. Financial aid will be reduced if study abroad costs less than study at the home institution.

Study overseas can, in fact, be a bargain, says David Calkins of the nonprofit IntelCross Study Abroad. He points out that a year at an American university usually costs around $20,000, while his program in Poland, for example, is less than $10,000 a year for "everything including meals."

He says the rewards of going abroad far outweigh any concerns students may have about costs or exploring new places.

Ms. Webster agrees. "It's a big decision to go and study in another language and not really know how you are going to fare. I actually excelled more in France in school because it was more challenging. I'd say I was reaching my potential for one of the first times in my life."

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