Why Study Abroad Matters…

November 04, 2016

By Mark Farmer

As former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, “In the 21st Century, a quality education is an international education.” The global skills, knowledge, and experiences that are gained while studying abroad have a profound impact on a student’s ability to compete and collaborate with graduates from around the world and produce a more culturally informed citizenry. As educators and policymakers, we need to refocus our efforts to ensure a greater number and more diverse group of students has the opportunity to experience meaningful study abroad.

For Our Students
Studying abroad is a unique educational experience that provides global learning opportunities that are critical to a student’s success in the 21st Century. Students who have studied abroad have greater intercultural understanding, better grasp the complexity of global issues, and are better equipped to work with people from other countries. Studies have even shown a positive correlation between students who study abroad and higher grade point averages and degree completion rates. And this is especially true for underrepresented and at-risk students.

In a globalized economy, these skills are increasingly important and valued by employers. A 2014 survey of 800 U.S. business executives, found that 75% of the companies indicated that a global perspective was important for their staff and 80% believed their overall business would increase if more of their staff had more international experience. A quality study abroad program helps students gain the knowledge necessary to compete in the global economy and provides future entrepreneurs and business leaders a worldwide network that will be indispensable once they graduate.

For Our Country
Leaders from both political parties and across the ideological spectrum have talked about the value of U.S. students studying abroad. Shortly after September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush said:

“By studying foreign culture and languages and living abroad, we gain a better understanding of the many similarities that we share and learn to respect our differences. The relationships that are formed between individuals from different countries as part of international education programs and exchanges can also foster goodwill that develops into vibrant, mutually beneficial partnerships among nations.”

Study abroad and educational exchange programs are valuable public diplomacy tools that allow the rest of the world to better understand the culture, people, and values of the United States and for us to better understand the rest of the world.

Between now and 2050, 98% of the world’s population growth is expected to take place outside of North America and Europe. If we don’t want to be left behind in the global economy, we need to understand the marketplace and ensure our graduates are comfortable working and interacting with people from around the world.

For the World
The challenges and opportunities that college graduates will face are global in nature—the economy is increasingly interconnected; climate change and epidemics ignore national borders; and foreign policy challenges, from transnational terrorism to refugees, require global solutions. The leaders of tomorrow will need to operate in an international context and be comfortable dealing with ambiguous situations. To successfully address these challenges, we must work with allies around the world and understand our place within the global community. As former Goucher College President Sanford Ungar wrote in Foreign Policy earlier this year:

“(T)he almost universal failure of the broader U.S. public to know and understand others, except through a military lens, is not just unfortunate but also dangerous. It severely hinders the creation and implementation of a rational, consistent, and nuanced foreign policy that reflects American values and enjoys public support. Luckily, there exists a disarmingly simple way to help address this problem and to produce future generations of Americans who will know more and care more about the rest of the world: massively increase the number of U.S. college and university students who go abroad for some part of their education and bring home essential knowledge and new perspectives.”

Increasing the number of students who study abroad, especially to countries outside of Western Europe, will create more globally minded citizens with a better understanding of the world and the role we can all play in making it more just and more peaceful.

NAFSA has long advocated for democratizing access to study abroad opportunities. We need more students going abroad, a study abroad population that reflects the demographics of U.S. higher education, and more students studying outside of the traditional countries in Western Europe. The benefits to our students, our country, and our world are clear and policymakers need to work together to ensure that all students, regardless of major, type of institution, ethnicity, disability, or socioeconomic status, have the opportunity to study abroad.

Visit www.nafsa.org/studyabroad to learn more about NAFSA’s policy priorities.


Mark Farmer is director of higher education and public policy at NAFSA: Association of Educators.


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