Why more students are studying abroad

Reasons such as 'seeing the world' still prevail, but some students also want new views of the US role.

As college students prepare for a fresh academic year, and the second anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks approaches, one thing some pundits had predicted is not happening: Young people are not responding to the attacks - or to America's faltering image abroad - by turning their back to the world.

Instead, young adults are traveling, studying, and volunteering overseas in growing numbers. This steadily rising stream among the T-shirt set reflects national surveys showing that Americans in general shun an isolationist and "go it alone" approach to the world.

The rise in study abroad follows some dips in such pursuits after the terror attacks - and then what some colleges reported as a reluctance by some students to commit to going overseas amid the uncertainties swirling around an Iraq war.

Now, study abroad is expected to rise slightly this year, sustaining a five-year trend that has seen the numbers of American youths making an overseas experience some part of their academic years jump by 55 percent since 1997, according to the Institute for International Education in New York.

"Right now it looks like we could have a slight increase," says Heykyung Koh, a research officer at IIE, which compiles statistics on students abroad submitted by US colleges. "Sept. 11 convinced people there's a world out there that we need to understand better, and that has translated into increased interest in studying abroad."

Expected numbers

The IIE will publish its annual survey in November, but already some major universities report significant increases in students going abroad - even after the years of growth and an uncertain economy. Michigan State University, which topped last year's IIE survey, expects about a 7 percent rise in students going abroad. Another top spot for study abroad, the University of Texas (UT) at Austin, forecasts about a 4 percent rise.

For some students, the motivation is still just to have fun, to "see the world," or to flee the strictures of home and the paper chase, if only for a semester. But for a substantial number, the new focus is to add some international spice to the résumé in a competitive and global job environment.

And for what may be a small but growing number, part of the impetus is a desire to take overseas a different America from the one that, if global surveys are accurate, a large swath of the world increasingly distrusts and even disdains.

"When I first went to London, the big motivation for me was just to have the ability to live overseas, and to get a different perspective on the world and America," says Elizabeth Feltes, a College of William and Mary graduate now at home in Denver, finishing a master's dissertation from the University of London.

"But after Sept. 11 and especially as it became clear we were going to take some kind of action in Iraq, I had a heightened sense of being a representative of America. I realized," she adds, "that we are such important players internationally that we can't afford to isolate ourselves from the world anymore."

Some specialists see little change in students' overall motivations for going overseas. "The reasons remain pretty much the same. They want the experience as part of their undergraduate education. They want to see something of the world," says Amanda Kelso, associate director of study-abroad programs at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

But others say they do detect an evolution in students' motivations. "We still have the students who say, 'I'm not sure what I want to do, so my parents will pay for me to hang out in Europe while I figure it out,' but it's not the backbone of study abroad anymore," says John Sunnygard, director of UT's Center for Global Educational Opportunities.

Surveys that UT has done reveal that nearly 9 out of 10 students going overseas envision the experience as "something that will help define their career prospects," Mr. Sunnygard says. But he adds the university is also seeing "a growing number who want to better understand" why America's image abroad has drooped, "and to better understand America's role in the world."

"Some of these kids want to answer for themselves the question, 'Why don't they like us?' " Sunnygard says.

At Michigan State, which for many years has placed a premium on international studies (MSU's president, Peter McPherson, is on leave in Iraq as financial coordinator for the US-administered reconstruction), Sept. 11 is seen more as a wake-up call than a discouragement.

The attacks and their aftermath "have been an eye-opening experience for students, as they have for other Americans, that we need to know about other cultures," says Cindy Chalou, assistant director of MSU's Office of Study Abroad.

Efforts stateside

Some students report that their overseas experience left them more interested in getting involved - from here at home.

Ms. Feltes's studies focused on the Middle East, her dissertation is on Iraq, and she hopes to get a job in Washington using that knowledge. But she says she also wants to encourage other young people to "think more about the world and America's role in it."

As a result, she and a small group of young people from around the country will be leading Web chats, visiting campuses, and circulating a national petition on America's global responsibilities. The name of the organization of students who developed these ideas while studying abroad is VOYAGE - Voices of Young Americans for Global Engagement.

"The segment of America that believes we should work with the world more than alienating it hasn't found a voice, and we want to change that," says Nate Olson, a student at Centre College in Danville, Ky., and founder of VOYAGE.

A veteran of studies in England now about to embark on a presemester trip to Ethiopia, Mr. Olson says the idea of a national petition stems from the need he and his colleagues sensed - while studying overseas - to get Americans thinking more about their role in the world.

"We're the only superpower, which means we have a lot of opportunities in the world as Americans but also responsibilities," says Olson, whose group also includes students from Florida, Texas, and Tennessee. "We want to encourage the young people who will set our foreign policy tomorrow to discuss that."

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