Study Abroad: A Rite of Passage or a Waste?

Monday, October 21, 2013

Female Student from Sicily, shot in front of the river Regnitz in Bamberg on a snowy day in Germany in Winter. (Shutterstock)

Study abroad has become a rite of passage of sorts for so many of today’s youth. Our partner The New York Times started a debate on the merits of study abroad, provoking a wide range of opinions.

Some say that the experience is necessary in an increasingly interconnected world. Others say that it can be a waste of money if the program isn’t run correctly.

In the 2010-2011 academic year, 273,996 U.S. students studied abroad for academic credit. The number of students studying abroad still represents a tiny sliver of the total number of students enrolled in post-secondary education—about one percent.

Mark Salisbury is one of the authors of the monograph "Renewing the Promise, Refining the Purpose: Study Abroad in a New Global Century." Curtis S. Chin, the United States ambassador to the Asian Development Bank from 2007 to 2010, is the managing director of RiverPeak Group, an advisory firm. They join The Takeaway to weigh the costs and benefits of study abroad programs.


Curtis Chin and Mark Salisbury

Produced by:

Tyler Adams and Andrew Aylward


T.J. Raphael

Comments [12]

Amy from NYC

My study abroad over 30 years ago completely changed my life and all for the better. It influenced my graduate studies, my sense of adventure, and the opportunities I've worked hard to provide for my daughter. It certainly wasn't a waste for me.

Feb. 20 2014 09:56 AM
Susan from NYC from New York, NY

I read Mr. Chin's piece and I found it a little narrow in focus. I'm inclined to agree with the wider notion that study abroad can be very valuable, and doesn't seem to drain resources from other programs. If it's only a small percentage of students who do it, then, to what harm? Certainly there are a few over-priveledged students who pay too much to go abroad to shop and party for a few months. But for the most part you will find people, as you see above and from those who called in, who found life-altering experiences living in a different culture, and, often, in a different language. I am the product of an undergraduate semester in Spain and graduate work in art in Rome. In the end, I spent 5 years living in Europe, which seemed to be looked down upon by one of your commentators. (The notion being that Europe was a 'boondoggle' or 'luxury?') But the European Community is a major force in the world, and understanding better how much of it thinks is a plus. Additionally, I use my languages and that educational experience in my work.

I love the idea of programs that are affordable and achievable to take students out of their comfort zone, whatever that might be, whether within a community, in the otherwise US, or abroad. All of these are tools to broaden a student's horizons. I would suggest that guidance counselors should have access to a clearinghouse for great programs, (and grants available for using them,) so that all students might find an avenue to wider experience, regardless of their income level. Neither of the programs I studied with was connected to the university that I received a degree from, but were selected for their academic and language-level immersion, and for being relatively inexpensive. I was lucky in a teacher-mentor (on the first study,) and the intrepid research by my parents on the second. And all credits were transferrable, btw.

Oct. 24 2013 07:30 PM
Cate C. from Brooklyn

I don't think study abroad can or should be defined in a cost/benefit analysis. It comes down to the program, the student, and chance. I do think American colleges and universities over-charge for these types of programs, but American colleges and universities overcharge for everything. I got around that by finding independent programs and working with my academic advisor to get approved for independent study credits that would go towards my major. Of course not everyone can do that, but I bet I'm not the only one who worked it out that way.

I did three different study abroad programs - a yearlong sojourn to the Czech Republic before university, and two shorter programs as independent studies in university. (A summer seminar in Dusseldorf, Germany, and a semester of language immersion in Prague, CZ.) Words can't capture the experiences I had. There were ups and downs, highs and lows, one stalker, many drinking buddies, and two friends for life. I visited 25 countries before my 25th birthday, I learned advanced syntax (forgotten), basic Czech language (also forgotten), and myself (still going strong!). These experiences helped me understand friendship and family in ways I never imagined. I encourage everyone who's asked me to go for it. No one that I know who did it regrets the experience.

Oct. 23 2013 04:33 PM
Stacie Berdan from CT

I'm very glad to see that the debate my coauthor, Dr. Allan Goodman, and I sparked on study abroad has made it to the airwaves! But I think the question deserves a lot more space than a collective 1,000 words in print or 4-5 minutes on radio.
I also think we are saying the same thing.
While I agree that it is difficult for every student to do it, that doesn't make it wrong to aspire to have more college students study abroad. Visiting Koreatown or watching foreign films are great ideas and ways to learn about other people. But these are not a replacement for international education done well. I think we are all in agreement on that point. The debate begins with the cost and learning. There is not doubt that a high school student will learn more doing community service in an immigrant community in the US then a college kid on a party-spree across Europe. But the work that I do -- and that which IIE does as a leader in international education for more than 100 years -- is working to change that. Demanding better cross-cultural preparation before leaving. Requiring integration with classwork on the ground while also intervening to ensure students are learning beyond books -- learning about culture, communication and relationship-building around the world.

Ambassador Chin has had the luxury of growing up as a "Army brat" around the world and has realized tremendous career success because of his international perspective. Although everyone may not aspire to be an ambassador or an international business person like me, who are we to say they shouldn't try? With the rapid rise of economies around the world, we would all be well-advised to encourage more global awareness than less. Proper study abroad programs can be the capstone of an education, one that requires understanding of the rest of the world (not just the diversity within our borders).

We all need to work together so more students have access to cost-effective programs that enhance learning and include foreign languages, a critical need for American students. We are so insulated, we don't think we need others. In fact, despite the fantastic cultural diversity in the US, we still need to know what it's like to stand in other people's shoes, to view the US from afar, and to learn to work with people from other countries and in other languages. We don't have all the answers. The future success of the US depends on our young people's abilities to lead a new engagement with the rest of the world. Studying abroad matters. But if we trivialize it in snippets, we do our students more harm than good. Let's work together to make study abroad more affordable for all so that more students have a choice.

I'd be very happy to be a guest on the show and have an in-depth conversation about the need for global education as part of the American curriculum. Perhaps you could dedicate a half hour or more to do justice to a complex yet very important topic in today's global times.

Oct. 23 2013 11:57 AM
Robert from Manhattan

I spent one year in Freiburg, Germany. I cannot praise my time abroad more. I became fluent in German and hope to obtain my masters degree there one day. I work for a global company with offices across the world, many in Germany. My linguistic skills and deep understanding of the German culture help me in my professional realm and beyond.

Study abroad can be done two ways. You have those students who only go for a semester, or even a year, and they waste their time by spending it with fellow Americans, drinking and partying. Many fail to achieve even a basic understanding or working ability in the language of their host country even after months. Then there are those students who truly assimilate into the new culture, do their best to only speak the native language and learn about another people by interacting with them daily, whether they be friends or just the checkout lady at the till.

Yes, studying abroad is expensive and, yes, it can be a huge waste of resources, but only if the student fails to make the most of their time abroad. There is simply no adequate substitute for learning about our wonderfully rich world than by immersing yourself into a different culture and language.

I think back to my year in Germany every day with happy memories. I use my German every day. It's been over two years since I lived there, but I still often dream in German and I remain in touch with my friends from Europe. I recently returned for a vacation, not to see a new place, but to reconnect with my dear friends, who I know will last a lifetime. No price can be put on that vital part of life.

Oct. 23 2013 09:23 AM
Kathleen from New Jersey

Our family hosted 11 high school year-exchange students. I was also the State Coordinator for the program so got to know several hundred others. It is amazing how much the students changed as their year first they looked mostly for similarities to their own countries. Then, gradually, as they noticed the differences - and similarities - in our country, most were able to become comfortable and able to relate culturally. My own son (who did not do an exchange) - is an adult who now works in international business and travels widely. He admitted that living with and getting to know the students was invaluable; as a result, he said he's able to maintain an open attitude no matter where he goes in the world.

Oct. 22 2013 01:20 PM
Missy, Melibee Global from US

Study abroad is ideal if it is done well and if the participants have a sincere interest in the academic topic and experiential education. By that I mean with solid program design that focuses on academics, on going reflection and an understanding and respect for the host country. Study abroad should be academic and fun...but should not disregard culture and the impact on locals (or stereotypes of Americans). With that in mind, some colleagues and I volunteer for - a tool (free) that helps to improve study abroad by creating meaningful academic experiences and avoiding reinforcement of stereotypes of others. It is sad for me to hear about the extreme costs that are associated with study abroad - depending on the home university's model, study abroad can actually cost less than remaining at home. It depends also on the cost of living in the host country, but sadly, various schools structure it to be a fund raising opportunity. Thanks for covering this topic - I was really thrilled to see it!

Oct. 22 2013 12:59 PM
GwenEllyn from Salem, Oregon

I was in the car during this conversation and wanted to call. It is important to recognize that individuals make progressive steps towards exposure to discomfort and stretching their awareness.

I recently began requiring my Psychology 101 students to complete a Risk Activity that takes them out of their comfort zone. This was in response to realizing that in a summer class of 22 students in 2011, few had been much farther than their backyards! Despite living in the State's capitol, only 2 had been to the Capitol building (in Junior High with their class). Three had been out of the country - 1 to Canada and 2 during their service in Iraq. Only 5 had been to Portland - 45 miles North. Most had been to the Coast (an hour to the West) and several had been to the mountains (3 hours to the East). The farthest the majority had been was East to Detroit Lakes - a camp, vacation spot about an hour from town.

Now, they visit authentic restaurants, see foreign films, go to concerts, go to sporting events, attend plays, visit museums, etc. It is a small step overall and it is a big step for them. Hopefully, it is the beginning of greater exploration into the world of diversity and differences.

Oct. 21 2013 05:52 PM

It's "rite of passage," not "right of passage."

Oct. 21 2013 04:29 PM

In the piece, the discussion was "Is studying abroad valuable when we can't send every student abroad?" That is the wrong question. The question should be “How can we make studying abroad an option to a wider range of students?” I certainly don't advocate mandating it, but by all means don't eliminate it!
We are a very isolated country and exposing more people to more cultures outside of the US can only help us on a global scale. Studying abroad is an eye-opening experience to almost every student. They cannot help but come home a different person. Obviously different programs have different outcomes, but in my experience, most people walk away from the experience understanding more about humanity than anything else.
Studying abroad changed my life. I was an exchange student to Norway in high school and studied in Russia during their second coup in college. Both experiences shaped me academically, but also in how I interact with the world around me. I went on to live and work abroad in 3 more countries after graduating. I still use those more intangible life skills today.

Oct. 21 2013 03:03 PM
Tara from Seattle, WA

This was a great piece and so important to continue the conversation. I think cross cultural learning is essential for our society, both our youth and adults. There is great value in studying abroad or global travel, the benefits are infinite. But as one of your contributors mentioned, it is out of the reach of most American students. I have traveled the world, but the past two years have realized how much global learning, new cross cultural experiences and different perspectives is accessible in my own city. Please visit a project I am doing, that addresses exactly what your conversation spoke to. Cross cultural learning and connections can organically happen every day if we push outside of our comfort zones and talk to "strangers" around us.

Oct. 21 2013 12:58 PM
Heather from Portland

As an undergrad at a small state school I studied subsistence living in Alaska. A great example of learning from the diversity in America. It was an amazing experience and not nearly as expensive as studying abroad.

Oct. 21 2013 12:51 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.