Culture

From Albania to Singapore, U.S. Students Look for Tailored Experiences Abroad

How to Study Abroad

As the world continues to globalize more, study abroad experiences have adapted. Programs can now be shorter and more immersive––but do the educational benefits of being in another country remain the same? And does speaking the language even matter? 

When you are in a foreign country, don’t speak the language and have something you must accomplish, stuff can go wrong.

Which, at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, is the point. “They are all in over their heads,” Stephen McCauley, co-director of the school’s Global Lab, said of student teams dispatched to 53 locations in 35 countries to tackle problems in local communities.

It is hardly “Survivor: College Edition.” But, increasingly, study abroad is a boots-on-the-ground experience with challenge and purpose.

In a photo provided by Donald Dione/Worcester Polytechnic Institute, a flood-prone area in the Shkoder region of Albania, next to the Drin River. More students in the United States are studying overseas, and colleges now offer a variety of experiences that let students choose what they want. (Donald Dione/Worcester Polytechnic Institute via The New York Times)

Take the WPI students who arrived in Albania’s flood-prone Shkoder region with the task of getting residents in rural and Roma communities to think concretely about disaster planning. Immediately, students saw that their approach — having residents photograph water damage in their homes for follow-up interviews — was a bust.

“It was too complex,” said Sarah St. Pierre, a biomedical engineering major who with three classmates and two faculty members traveled to the region in October 2017 for seven weeks. “We had to take a step back. What is actually going to work? What can we actually do?”

Their solution: visit residents to see the moldy doors and water-stained walls from the epic 2010 flood. Then, structure talks about emergency moves, like storing drinking water and untying livestock, using a sorting game adapted from one by the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre. Their version used information gathered from interviews and field work and was crafted from paper and packing tape.

This is not your parents’ study abroad.

Sure, you could lose hours to tiny cups of espresso on sloped tables on the periphery of cobblestoned plazas, meet every Monday at El Prado, or marvel at the hopes held by the Omikuji, tiny paper fortunes at Shinto shrines.

Lorvely Prevert, a native of Haiti, on the campus of Miami Dade College in Miami, May 28, 2019. A community college program, Educate Tomorrow, helps students like Prevert who have faced instability at home study overseas. She got to take a literature course in Britain and visit Windsor Castle. (Scott McIntyre/The New York Times)

But you may not have time. Study abroad now — like nearly everything else — is more structured, brief and undertaken with a goal in mind. It has become a must-get college experience, a coveted résumé credential and a way to test independence for a generation that does so carefully.

Those lures are drawing more American students than ever to study overseas — more than 332,000 in 2016-17, according to the 2018 Open Doors Report on International Exchange. But for shorter periods. About 65% go for eight weeks or less or over the summer (it was 56% a decade earlier).

Most want academic credit, but any foreign experience counts. Those doing noncredit internships and service learning (it could be just a few weeks), have nearly tripled in the past five years. It helps that the grand umbrella of “study abroad” now includes a variety of foreign experiences so that, like the way we consume music, students can choose what they want, need and can afford.

What’s clear is that study abroad — once the way to get fluent in a foreign language or firsthand exposure to cultural sites — is less and less about that.

What’s clear is that study abroad — once the way to get fluent in a foreign language or firsthand exposure to cultural sites — is less and less about that. In fact, said Cheryl Matherly, vice president and vice provost for international affairs at Lehigh University, “if you had programs just based on students with language ability, you wouldn’t have anybody going.”

Enrollment in foreign language study, she said, “is cratering.”

From left, Worcester Polytechnic Institute students Donald Dione, Sarah St. Pierre, Tyler Weiss and Kylie Dickinson on campus in Worcester, Mass., April 29, 2019. More students in the United States are studying overseas, and colleges now offer a variety of experiences that let students choose what they want. The students created an interactive card game that they then played with residents of eight different communities in Albania. (Kayana Szymczak/The New York Times)

Increasingly, study abroad happens in English. And schools like Lehigh are making targeted foreign forays — cast as global learning — a centerpiece of campus offerings. They appeal to students across majors with tailored experiences like marketing in Shanghai or combining tech and business in Prague, which slip into convenient time slots, like summer.

In the past two years, Lehigh has expanded abroad offerings, adding internships, including ones with tech startups in New Delhi. This summer, the new 32 Global Social Impact Fellowships will offer project learning at eight sites, with six in Sierra Leone. The message: It’s for everyone.

“We really think the international experience is part of the Lehigh experience,” Matherly said. Campus courses are also being redesigned with a global focus so going abroad doesn’t feel “like an add-on.”

Abroad options are growing elsewhere, too. The University of Oregon has over 300, up from 200 five years ago, with brief faculty-led programs and internships the most popular, said Tom Bogenschild, executive director of global education.

Cameron Person in the Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Foisie Innovation Studio in Worcester, Mass., April 30, 2019. More students in the United States are studying overseas, and colleges now offer a variety of experiences that let students choose what they want. (Kayana Szymczak/The New York Times)

At WPI, which first sent students abroad in 1988 to London, those going outside the United States to complete required projects has risen dramatically in the past five years, to over 1,000 this year from an undergraduate student body of about 4,400. Among the Class of 2019, 60% went abroad.

What’s happening is that students are trying to do a lot at once — stay on track to graduate, not miss what’s happening on campus and collect new life experiences, said Melissa Torres, president and chief executive of the Forum on Education Abroad, whose 800 members are campuses and program providers. It’s put study abroad on a tight schedule. “It goes back to the way they were raised,” Torres said, “with less and less time for free play.”

This is why Megan Carroll, a rising senior from Brooklyn majoring in psychology at Lehigh, chose this summer to be a media and communications intern at 3M in Singapore. She didn’t want to be away from friends and family “for a whole semester.”

While Carroll said she and friends “talk about global politics,” she admitted “we don’t know everything.” She was itching to get out and see the world for herself.

“People my age are seeing the importance of stepping outside of themselves and seeing other cultures and experiencing things not just on TV, but themselves,” she said. Being outside the United States for a short span gives her practice being on her own and the space to mull career plans, “challenging myself to see what I do and don’t enjoy.”

And — the best part — Lehigh organized it. Carroll said the university set up her housing and internship, provided a stipend for meals and travel (plus $800 to make up for missed summer earnings). All that, she said, “makes it significantly easier to do this.”

Unlike a few years ago when schools barely tolerated study abroad (students battled to get financial aid and credits to transfer), more now encourage it. Many even help students apply for passports, pick programs and figure out funding.

And you don’t have to go for months. “The big message is that any length of time has value,” said Donald L. Rubin, professor emeritus at the University of Georgia and a leader of a large multiyear study on travel abroad. “Three weeks can make a big difference if they are three weeks that are well executed.”

Perhaps the biggest finding: Low-income students and those entering college with lower SAT scores had the greatest gains. Study abroad, Rubin said, “may actually be a way of leveling the playing field.”

The study has fed the drive to get more students to have an international experience. The pitch starts early, said Torres, with more schools “talking with families about education abroad as part of freshman orientation.”

Laurie Leshin, the president of WPI, has put it in her welcome address. And in fall 2017 Lehigh began recruiting incoming first-generation students to go abroad (and hosted a “practice” trip to Montreal at spring break).

That is the only way Jenny Lin, from Nesquehoning, Pennsylvania, even considered going. Otherwise, she would never have even attended an information session.

“I’m just not going to go and listen to them tell me about how expensive it is to study abroad,” she said. After considering options with advisers, she spent six weeks in Shanghai last summer taking classes in Chinese and working as a marketing intern.

Lin appreciated the self-reflection required — feeling “weird” about whether she saw herself as Chinese or American — and the challenge of making a slide presentation on a tight deadline for visiting dignitaries.

Going can come with complications. “You have countries where it is illegal to be gay,” said Andrew Gordon, chief executive and founder of Diversity Abroad, which works on issues of representation and inclusion. He added that “people with darker skin also have a different experience.” In some places, women of color “are mistaken as prostitutes.”

In a photo provided by Donald Dione/Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Sarah St. Pierre, at the table, right, is a student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute who traveled to Albania. More students in the United States are studying overseas, and colleges now offer a variety of experiences that let students choose what they want. (Donald Dione/Worcester Polytechnic Institute via The New York Times)

The very value of going abroad — being uncomfortable, trying to operate in unfamiliar surroundings — is also what makes it hard. As campuses try to have more focused and immersive programming (not just ridiculously easy classes in foreign cities), there is a lot to consider, including the impact of the visit on the host community.

It includes helping students to understand “how you act, how you show up” in another culture, said Leslie Dodson, co-director of WPI’s Global Lab. As when female students went to Morocco and struggled with expectations around dress.

Even though they had discussed it in advance, McCauley said, “we had to keep working with them while they were there.” Dodson said, “At the end of the day, we are guests, we are not there to promote our agendas.”

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By Laura Pappano ©2019 The New York Times

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