The young adults who explore the world while studying abroad also change it. They understand the importance of international experience.
Yasmine El Baggari, for example, is a 22-year-old entrepreneur who was inspired by her international experiences to found Voyaj, a platform that introduces travelers to like-minded hosts for customized cultural exchanges.
But how do we get more young people to study, travel, work, intern, and volunteer abroad? The statistics don’t lie; less than 10 percent of U.S. students study abroad. This is a critical issue for our educational system, national security, and economic future.
In the spring of 2014, while traveling in China, First Lady Michelle Obama called students from around the world to action, urging them to learn other cultures, languages, and customs by studying abroad.
In a speech at Peking University, Mrs. Obama noted, “Study abroad is quickly becoming the key to success in our global economy. It’s about having real experiences in the world beyond our borders. Study abroad is more than about improving your own future. It’s also about shaping the future of your country and the world we all share.”
Unfortunately, the lack of participation in study abroad programs by U.S. students means that access to such programs needs to be increased. Discussions of how to do so should include considerations of student diversity — from gender and ethnicity to field of study — as well as ways to fund study-abroad experiences. Additionally, the scope of international experience that is available to both college and high school students should venture beyond traditional study-abroad programs to include gap years, which could consist of actual work experience, as well as internships and volunteer opportunities.
White House Committed to Study Abroad and Global Citizenship
The First Lady’s speech at Peking University inspired a new initiative called Generation Study Abroad. The inaugural Institute of International Education (IIE) Summit on Generation Study Abroad begins tomorrow, October 1, 2015. It is the second White House event that addresses the importance of study abroad.
The first, Travel Bloggers Summit on Study Abroad and Global Citizenship, was held in December 2014 and welcomed the top 100 global travel bloggers. The summit was hosted by the National Security Council and focused on three areas: Studying, Volunteering, and Working Abroad as a Civic and Economic Imperative; Pushing Greater Diversity of Travelers, Destinations, and Fields — Pushing Through the Barriers; and Cultural Exploration.
The summit was remarkable in its inclusion of speakers with formative international experiences. These experts emphasized the impact that having such international experiences may make on individual lives.
Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs Evan Ryan noted, "It is crucial for our country’s next generation of leaders to travel, live, work, intern or volunteer abroad in order to gain the skills needed to understand and operate within the global political and economic landscape of the 21st century. It is in America’s national interest, writ large, to build and sustain a globally minded and internationally literate workforce, not just for government, but for private industry and society more broadly.”
After the event, the White House released a statement that expressed a continuing commitment to providing students with international experiences: “The summit sparked a dynamic conversation that went well beyond the White House. Having generated so much interest, the Administration will continue to engage with this group and others to build new partnerships and ensure that more young people have the opportunity to reach beyond our borders.”
The Travel Bloggers Summit was followed by the new IIE Generation Study Abroad initiative. The intent of the five-year plan is to double the number of students who study abroad by 2020. IIE is a leader in international education, and runs the Fulbright Program on behalf of the U.S. government. The organization is partnering with more than 600 sponsors, including institutions of higher education, education associations, and foreign governments, to expand study-abroad efforts.
Inaugural Study Abroad Summit to Maintain Focus on International Education
The inaugural Generation Study Abroad Summit, to be held on October 1–2, 2015, picks up where the Travel Bloggers Summit left off, with a focus on increased participation and access to international education. The summit features four plenary sessions that will address: how study abroad can be redefined and rebranded for today’s local economies; which innovative solutions are most effective for increasing study abroad participation; how study abroad builds a globally-minded workforce; and what the overall impact of study abroad is.
Sessions will also include panels devoted to intercultural competencies, language learning, curriculum development, private-sector needs, students with disabilities, preparation of a global workforce, first-generation college students, and the career benefits of studying abroad.
Initiatives to Enhance Study Abroad Rates
Participation in study-abroad programs can be increased in several ways, one of which includes reaching out to underserved populations and providing access to information about international education experiences. Another is to partner with corporations to help finance study-abroad programs for students via internships or work-study programs, and also to ascertain which global skills their employees need, and how students can obtain them.
The K–12 curriculum should be globalized, with opportunities for high school students to study abroad, and existing international educational activities and opportunities need to be further publicized, including study-abroad offerings for underrepresented fields, especially STEM. It's entirely possible for students in lab-centered fields to study abroad without interrupting their studies. And finally, students should be made aware of the relationship between international experience and national security so they understand that they are an integral part of our country’s well-being.
Participation in study abroad is critical for creating and becoming a global citizenry. To compete in the international economy, we need to have an educated, well-traveled, resilient population of global citizens. The significant discussions that have taken place at the White House, and that will occur over the next two days at the IIE Generation Study Abroad Summit, will likely — and beneficially — ultimately cascade into the academic, business, and political realms.