How US Colleges Encourage International Education Beyond Study Abroad

This week, the U.S. Department of Education is celebrating the 16th anniversary of International Education Week, a joint initiative with the U.S. State Department to promote international education, global studies, and cross-cultural relationships.

International education and global competence are key for academic and career success. In recorded remarks for the NAFSA: Association of International Educators annual conference this past May, outgoing Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, “In the 21st century, a quality education is an international education.” According to Duncan, the U.S. Department of Education continues to “promote and support study abroad, area studies, and foreign language learning.”

International Experiences on Campus

Studying abroad is often viewed as the primary means of promoting international education, though schools are also focusing on “internationalizing” their curricula in order to foster “global competence” — what the National Education Association (NEA) defines as “the acquisition of in-depth knowledge and understanding of international issues, an appreciation of and ability to learn and work with people from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds, proficiency in a foreign language, and skills to function productively in an interdependent world community.”

In light of global workplace demands, higher education has responded with efforts to internationalize the curriculum beyond simply offering study abroad programs, which encourage students to travel to gain global and intercultural experiences. The broadening of intellectual paradigms to include global competence is not, however, an endeavor that needs to be accomplished exclusively through travel; it can also occur on campus, and across disciplines.

According to the American Council on Education, 55 percent of respondents to a 2011 survey regarding the internationalization of college campuses reported that they have efforts underway to provide all students with global competencies, regardless of whether or not students study abroad.

Curricular Shifts

In many cases, global competence is taught through curricula designed for that very purpose.

For instance, Nebraska Wesleyan University focuses on global issues by integrating intercultural experiences and experiential learning opportunities throughout a four-year curriculum. In fact, the school’s general education curriculum is called “Preparing for Global Citizenship.” Study abroad remains a priority, with an emphasis on deliberate and reflective learning. Students attend an orientation prior to their study abroad experience, and upon returning they have the option to take a course called “Processing the International Experience,” in which they discuss a range of cultural issues.

At the University of Michigan, global competence is woven into a field of study. The school offers an International Minor for Engineers; it’s one of just a few institutions to offer an international focus in a STEM-related field. The program emphasizes foreign-language proficiency, knowledge of cultures outside of the United States, intercultural communication skills, and an awareness of global trends in engineering and business.

And Purdue University features a new core curriculum that includes “Intercultural Knowledge and Effectiveness” as one of its foundations. To help students document and reflect on their intercultural learning experiences, the school has created the Passport to Intercultural Learning (PUPIL). The passports allow teachers to award digital badges for challenges that students complete to demonstrate their engagement with intercultural learning activities.

Colleges and universities can follow these schools’ examples to internationalize their curricula and instill a global perspective in all students, not just those who have the opportunity to study abroad. This is especially important for first-generation college students, as well as underrepresented student populations. Portland Community College, for example, offers a Global Studies Focus Award. In order to qualify for the award, students must complete required courses in International Studies, Global Arts and Sciences, and Global Social Sciences.

Suggestions for Schools and Students

The following are suggestions for institutions and students seeking to internationalize higher education — beyond study abroad:

  • Incorporate global knowledge and literatures as core elements of the curriculum.
  • Include global examples in individual course topics.
  • Invite international perspectives and offer diverse experiential learning opportunities across campus.
  • Recognize that the standard events (culture carnivals and potlucks, for instance) to raise international awareness do not create real change or promote deep understanding.
  • Provide students with opportunities to live in global villages or residential communities that allow them to practice their linguistic and other intercultural skills.
  • Establish foreign-language partnerships with students from other countries.
  • Offer global student organizations for students to join.
  • Partner with global organizations such as Engineers Without Borders, Habitat for Humanity, and the Red Cross.

By promoting international education and global competence — on campus, as well as through study abroad — colleges and universities create an atmosphere of respect for diverse cultures, promote intercultural communication, and graduate students poised for leadership in the global economy.

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