Is studying abroad really worth it? Are all the costs associated with living in an another country for a certain period of time worth its value in education and experience?
Well that was the question our professor, Claire Booth asked our Market Research class for our end semester project. As a student who have participated in a student mobility program, the answer was simple, YES. The four months that I spent in Vienna, Austria for schooling at FH-Wien was perhaps the best decision I have made in my life. I managed to visit 10 different countries, 13 different cities in the span of 4 months all the while completing 12 credits or 4 classes worth of credits. Along the way, I got to experience the rich history that dates back thousands of years and see the actual authentic culture that has characterized western development for years, with my own eyes. En voyage, I got to try the local cuisines of many different places and closely inspected all the local favourite drinks as I explored the European nightlife. But most importantly, I was fortunate enough to meet and share stories with people from all walks of life from all across the globe. Now I can proudly say that I have friends from Auckland, New Zealand out to Oakland, U.S.A, from Paris, France to Accra, Ghana. And if need be, I have couch to crash on should I decide to travel. So was it worth it to me? Absolutely. But do other students feel the same way?
Thats what we set to find out.
For the purposes of this project, we conducted both qualitative and quantitative research. For the qualitative portion, we administered a ‘focus group’ with four students who have paritcipated in student mobility programs. And for the quantitative portion of our research, we programmed a survey through surveygizmo.com and fielded it for a week. When we closed the survey, we had 49 respondents from a list of 100 students that have participated in student mobility program beforehand. Our class was provided all the resources we required to conduct this research by the University.
You can take a look at our findings right here:
And upon analysis of our findings, it is apparent that the Study Abroad Program is a hit. There was a significant increase in the awareness of students, regarding the host country’s politics and economy and a better understanding of the cultural context.
The most common outcome (although there were others) was that each participant gained significant self-confidence. Many expressed that they now felt able to seek out challenges, because if they could study abroad and cope in a foreign language environment away from their support network, they felt they could do almost anything. Many of the other themes had more of a chicken/egg effect. Did the students with a wider perspective choose to go on exchange or did they gain that from their experience abroad?
Few undergraduate experiences inspire more fervent advocacy than study abroad. These arguments seem increasingly compelling today as a growing list of economic, environmental, and technological challenges underscore our need for a more globally savvy and culturally interconnected populace.
But beneath the appealing allure lies a perplexing reality: Despite annual press releases touting another “record” number of students abroad, the actual proportion of college students overseas has remained virtually unchanged. And as higher-education enrollments have grown more diverse, the demographic profile of those studying abroad continues to be mostly “white and female”.
If study abroad is critical to the future success of our students and our society, why hasn’t it become more common among undergraduates? Maybe, despite increased investment in study abroad, other obstacles continue to severely limit participation. Or maybe current marketing messages about the value of study abroad work more like a dog whistle audible to those tuned to an internationalist frequency than like a megaphone that can be heard by everyone. Even worse, what if we’ve oversold the benefits of study abroad, and everyone sees it but us?
North American study abroad programs usually portray language and culture skills as the end goal. I think our students don’t neccesarily share that goal, so they either can’t be bothered or they go along for the entertainment value or the status upgrade that study abroad brings. Upon return, their war stories and personal enrichment persuade few of their peers to follow.
If we want to turn the personal enrichments that study abroad brings into a more general social good, we should do 2 things:
1) Start programs in relevant foreign languages early while the process is still natural and fun, before languages become one more source of confusion in construction of a social identity. Evidence seems to show such early experience often sticks, even if students later switch languages.
2) Promote bilingualism as a skill available to all and a tool for EVERY career, not as a goal on its own. As Europe’s Erasmus study abroad program shows, students in business, STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics), social science, and humanities all benefit from studying and working in the language with it’s native speakers, not just on “language and culture.”