Wednesday, November 09, 2005
The Value of Studying Abroad
A recent report from the Institute of International Education indicates that American students studying abroad increased this past year almost 10 percent. This continues a trend from recent years of more and more college students taking time away from their home campuses for international experience.
While I'm not sure why studying abroad is becoming more popular, the report made me think about what all these students are getting from their experiences abroad. It's generally understood that studying abroad is a good thing, but why? Beyond the entertainment value, what can we say is gained from this kind of educational experience? What makes it "educational?"
Several answers seem pretty clear— language acquisition, credit for specialty courses, experiencing first hand the daily life of a different culture, building communication skills, etc. —but there's something central. To me the most important value of studying abroad, while a consequence of encountering another culture, set of values, and worldview, is really the insights it can provide into one's own worldview, attitude, and beliefs. Facing cultural differences provides a real opportunity to question assumptions, expose the fragility of generalizations, and collapse unquestioned stereotypes. Certainly it requires a degree of openness and some effort to communicate across differences, and hence is not guaranteed, but when successful this new awareness can have profound results. It can inspire a habit of perception, one that values diversity and aims to experience more of the richness of our world. Perhaps more importantly, it can help us reduce elitism and arrogance.
Put differently, studying abroad, as it encourages this kind of awareness and openness, can inspire a real enthusiasm for learning generally. It can provide a concrete, experiential basis for a lifetime of learning, of expanding knowledge, and of self improvement. Isn't that what we want our college educations to provide?
I think it is.