Study Abroad: Moving Beyond Tourism
Higher education’s efforts to act globally are often judged by the successes of their study abroad programs. The number of students they accept from, or send to, other countries is often over-relied upon as the quality measure of institutions’ efforts as global citizens. Just as important in the consideration of a college’s global citizenship are its efforts to contribute to the communities to which they send students. Mindful of that priority, helping to shape an interdependent and equitable global community should also be central to higher education’s international efforts.
Exchange and study abroad programs should offer the possibility of reorienting students’ responsibilities to the world. Simultaneously, these experiences should engender greater humility — in students, faculties and especially in institutions. We also know that global efforts — like those of the United States — to “underdeveloped” countries often exacerbate the very problems they seek to remedy. Taking this lesson to heart, there are very important things to be mindful of in any consideration of institutional competencies as global citizens.
First and foremost, any engagement abroad should teach participants how to care — how to care deeply — about the world, for the people they meet and with whom they collaborate, and for the inequities that are at the root of chronically uneven development. Empathy for any citizen, global or domestic, should be the foremost goal.
To this end, partnerships are the cornerstones that will sustain institutional efforts across the globe. Matching missions and priorities to partners who can improve access, equity and justice through education is key. And partners cannot be faceless entities to their respective U.S. partners; rather, they must be people with whom faculty and staff work and come to trust.
Partners must also share values that mutually evolve educational practices, guide program direction and deepen commitments. It is with in-country partners, and because of them, that institutions can learn how to move towards mutually supportive and equitable global communities.
As institutions of higher education continue to mature as global citizens, they will discover the resourcefulness and stamina to sustain their commitments to key partnerships — a quality sometimes in short supply for educational institutions. Too often colleges and universities look to grow their enrollments to feed revenue-starved programs by appealing to new international markets. Rather than this approach, future efforts should build capacity for shared values-driven decisions. This approach can generatively expand institutional stamina and sustain long-term engagements.
The “one-and-done” chase for a cash crop of students can wear away at the most distinctive mission until it fades from view. Any institutional identity is strong because it encourages assertive individuality while also demanding inclusivity. This characteristic is too important to risk on partners or efforts that might atrophy a college’s collective strength and break down the resolve of faculty committed to global education.
And let’s not forget the students. They are always learning from institutions. Students today can be keenly skeptical of an institution’s intentions. Global competency should require that they think critically about systemic inequities so they can begin to dismantle them as global citizens.
Barry Pearson is a senior vice president for intergenerational learning at Purchase College, State University of New York. He has been a senior vice president and provost for over 15 years. Much of his work as an executive in higher education has focused on expanding global education and international partnerships. You can reach him by email here.