US colleges just can't keep students at home

Dartmouth College students seldom have the opportunity to put on a bathing suit during class - unless they happen to be spending their winter term studying biology in Costa Rica and Jamaica. And going on safari isn't a typical afternoon activity - except for those studying wildlife management and economic development in Harare, Zimbabwe.

At least 60 percent of students at the the Hanover, N.H., school spend a term overseas. And they aren't the only ones. The number of US students studying abroad has risen sharply in the late 1990s. A new survey released this week by the Institute of International Education (IIE) shows that the number of students receiving academic credit for study abroad rose by 14.6 percent in 1997-98. That increase came on the heels of an 11.4 percent rise during the previous year.

It's evidence that despite Americans' traditional isolationist tendencies, the world has become a much smaller place for a younger generation. And increasingly, studying abroad is seen as a key component to future success in the job market.

The economy, in fact, is a major factor. "It's related in both obvious and subtle ways," says Todd Davis, IIE's director of research. "The obvious way is that these are flush times for Americans and we're willing to spend some of our resources on that international dimension."

But equally relevant, he adds, is the effect the new global economy has had in placing a premium on international experience. "When Chrysler is run by a company that makes Mercedes-Benz and this happens in Tuscaloosa, Ala., you know you're living in a world where to compete you have to have an international perspective."

That's apparent in the rising proportion of business majors studying abroad. Their interests and needs have prompted colleges to develop more internships and other short-term, career-oriented sojourns.

One-month programs have been growing in recent years at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., according to Kathy Tuma, assistant director of international and off-campus studies. "Students are trying to make the most of their careers, doing double and triple majors, and it's the most they can pack in," she explains.

These shorter programs don't give students much of a chance to learn the language - and despite the increasing numbers of Americans studying abroad, language proficiency has not gone up, reports Kathleen Sideli, chair of the American Association of International Educators' Section on US Students Abroad. But a lack of language skills poses less and less of a deterrent to students, since so many courses are taught in English at overseas universities, she explains.

Those who do attempt to become fluent in another language report that it's well worth the effort. "Learning another language gives you a lot more respect for the people around you," says Jennifer Gill, a junior at Dartmouth who spent a term in Sienna, Italy. Ms. Gill got so much out of her experience that she changed her major from economics to comparative literature, focusing on English and Italian.

Europe, of course, has long been a favorite place for study. But US students are getting more adventurous in their choice of destinations. Since 1985, the percentage of programs in Latin America has more than doubled. The individual country with the greatest increase in US students last year was China, up 30 percent. And Ms. Sideli reports that there are a couple of programs looking to go to Cuba.

"Students who are going overseas now were 10 years old when the Berlin Wall fell," Davis explains. "They have no personal memory of the kind of bipolar world that was threatening to go nuclear. Their understanding is of a world in which opportunity exists - if one is prepared to take advantage of it."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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