The Judgment Games: Short Versus Long, Western Versus Non-Traditional Study Abroad

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parismapAfter three semesters into my doctoral program I need to break free from the academic confines and share some writing that is perhaps more emotionally-charged.  I want to chat about something that has been gradually weighing on my mind since I’ve become a professional in the field of study abroad.  It’s about our quickness to judge.  On the whole, it seems as though we as educators have taken to deciding for our students what experiences they ought to be having rather than listening to them.  Programs that are in Western Europe or shorter than an academic semester just can’t provide them with the rich, cultural experiences we think they should be having.  Well, that’s what the cries for an increase in sending students to non-traditional destinations and the growing concern that the prevalence of short-term programs is an actual threat to semester or year-long participation would have us believe, anyway.

As a product of three short-term programs in Western European countries myself, it really annoys me that there are other people who would try and belittle the experiences I had, making me feel as though I had taken the easy way out because I studied in destinations that are Westernized and popular.  Yeah, sure, I couldn’t have had that transformative of an experience after all, right? 

The fact of the matter is that often times our students have very good reasons for choosing the locations and programs that they do.  While there is certainly something to be said for a study abroad advisor helping a student explore all their options and consider locations or programs with which they might not otherwise be familiar, there are also those students who have made a very conscious and informed decision to study in a Western European location on a short-term program.  Using myself as an example: I had been studying the French language since high-school, had engaged in a short exchange program in France as part of my city’s Sister Cities organization, and had a French grandmother–there was no question that I felt a strong calling to study in France when the opportunity presented itself in college.  Considering I had goals of wanting to improve my accent per standardized French, visit the country in which some of my family originated and still live, and yes, see Paris, why should I be made to second guess the legitimacy and value of these goals or experiences?  Furthermore, though I would like to think that I could have succeeded on a semester-long, more independent program as a sophomore in college, I am grateful to have participated on a short-term faculty-directed study abroad program for my first education abroad experience in college.  I feel as though I learned a lot about how to be a culturally-aware traveler thanks to the structured environment and mentorship of my faculty director, all of which set me up well for my later international experiences.

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The Gardens at the Palace of Versailles. (Photo credit: Kyle Rausch)

As someone who works with many faculty-directed programs, I definitely agree that there are many of these programs in existence that have little to no academic merit , however, that does not mean that there are not many more that are very worthwhile and engaging.  Rather than focusing on trying to entice students to go abroad on longer-term programs that might not be the best fit for their academic schedule or personal preference, we should instead refocus our energy on removing the rights of entitled faculty who are inexperienced at leading such endeavors and thereby create more well-designed short-term programs led by faculty who have received appropriate professional development. To do this, we need senior leadership at institutions who are not afraid of their faculty.  I’ve seen directors and deans who shy away from any situation that would require them to tell a faculty member “no.” Certain faculty members are afforded primadonna status even when colleagues in their departments know they abuse their powers and go against procedures that are in place to not only protect students on programs but encourage academic integrity.  We need leadership that is not afraid to back international education professionals when they know they are right.

We also need to do a better job of understanding the current generation of college students, students who are entering college these days with an increasing array of mental health concerns, close-knit ties to family members, small pocketbooks from paying high tuition and program fees, and of course, certain indoctrinated beliefs about what it means to be successful in college engrained from our culture. If we lament the fact that more and more students are looking to short-term programs in more familiar destinations, we need only look at ourselves in the mirror to place the blame.  “We’ll fall behind if we don’t generate more STEM majors!” we cry.  “Business degrees are where the money is at!” our parents and media contest.  As students enter college following degree programs that leave barely any time for extracurriculars (after one accounts for the part-time jobs many students must take on in order to afford college in the first place), can one really complain that short-term programs are becoming the choice du jour for our students?  The fact that students endeavor to study abroad at all in light of how systematic the college experience has become should be applauded rather than scrutinized.

And if there is any “fault” to be placed on the fact that students want to study abroad in popular destinations such as London, Paris, and Rome, one need look no further than our own K-12 educational system.  Our elementary and secondary educational systems are steeped in Western traditions, with but a passing glance given to the less-traditional cultures we suddenly believe to be so important once students rise through the ranks and hit university.  We’re so concerned that children learn what it means to be a good democratic citizen in our consumerist society that we can’t chance having their impressionable minds be exposed to any non-Western traditions, religions, or ideologies lest they be led astray.  I very much believe that if we genuinely want to see more students study outside of Western Europe then we have to tackle the issue from the ground up, and that means starting in our elementary schools.

I hope that as we come together to support campaigns such as Generation Study Abroad, we will not only ask how we can have more students having international education experiences in general, but how we can have more students participating on responsible programs that help them succeed in their lives while having meaningful engagements with other people from other cultures.  To do that, we need to spend less time placing certain countries and types of programs on a hierarchy, and spend more time helping our stakeholders. We also need to invest in truly listening to this generation of students and helping them determine what their goals are instead of trying to pass off our own judgments about what is meritorious or not. Only then will we be able to take satisfaction in our having played a part in the transformative power of education abroad.

kylerausch2About the Author:  Kyle Rausch is an international education administrator and doctoral student at Arizona State University, as well as a valued member of the Melibee hive.  You can read more about him here.

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  • Kyle, at times it was like you were reaching into my brain and pulling out my thoughts! Great post and spot on insights. With what we as professionals in the field can control, the biggest contribution we can make is to reach deep down and actually listen to students’ needs and desires. I studied on a J-term program in Germany as an undergrad and it literally changed the course of my life–you’d be hard-pressed to say that isn’t a consequential impact. Well written!

  • Victoria Hundley

    I’ve put a lot of thought into this topic myself. I attended a university where only a handful of people study abroad each year and maybe one every year or two would have gone to a non-traditional location. I can’t believe I’d never linked the tendency to study in Westernized cultures to what we study as children. Thanks for sharing. I’ll be thinking about this for a while.