American Students Studying Abroad Has Declined for First Time in 25 Years

The Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange released on Nov. 15 reported a decrease in the number of American students studying abroad. Published annually by the Institute of International Education — with funding from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs — the report shows that 260,327 students studied abroad for credit during the academic year 2008-09, compared to 262,416 the previous year, a modest decline of 0.8%.

For the first time in the 25 years that the data has been tracked, the total number of U.S. students studying abroad for academic credit did not increase. Cost seems to be the number one obstacle with the poor economy cited as the main reason students didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to gain valuable international experience.

The report found, however, that there were notable increases in the number of U.S. students going to study in less traditional destinations and a decrease in the number of students going to four of the top five study abroad destinations — the UK, Italy, Spain and France. China, the fifth leading destination, saw an increase of 19%. Fifteen of the top 25 destinations were outside of Western Europe — Argentina, South Africa, Chile — and nineteen were countries where English is not a primary language. The report also showed an increase of 37% in the number of students participating in practical work experiences as part of their study abroad, with 18,715 students now receiving academic credit at U.S. colleges and universities for internships or work abroad.

This last bit of information is good news. Evidence continues to mount that working and living abroad is a key differentiator in global competition, and students will benefit from this experiential education after graduation. Multinational companies benefit from a global work force. Consequently, their demand for graduates with international experience continually increases, but employers also want students who can usefully bring their international experience to work. An internship or part-time job can make a big difference.

So can a more integrated curricula with foreign language and cultural immersion. American universities have begun and must continue to adapt so more students can afford to study abroad and, increasingly, in the countries that are showing strong economic growth. But they also need to adapt their programs; taking classes in English at an American university taught by teach-abroad professors is no longer enough. Schools must integrate the global experience into the curriculum by incorporating language learning and a part-time job or internship find students better able to navigate the cultural terrain and understand how to apply this learning to a job.

For example, the entire study abroad course — be it three weeks or a full year — should begin at the home campus with intense cultural and intellectual preparation. Some schools offer courses in history, politics, economics and geography. Others require students to research an aspect of country and culture, make a presentation to the department before they leave, and then again upon their return home with updated findings and experience. Others teach from the perspective of a particular group, such as government regulators, consumers or manufacturers, and then incorporate the real deal in the classroom in country. Local language learning, a mixture of international student classrooms, relevant classes and excursions with a purpose make a world of difference in bringing enhanced academic rigor to the study abroad program. It’s also a deep cultural dive that students can use in their careers — at the very least to develop their international resumes to launch a global career.

Studies have shown that in addition to increased self-awareness, confidence, and professional direction, these budding internationalists have improved academic performance, higher graduation rates, and improved knowledge of cultural practices and context compared to students in control groups.

Although the numbers are down for 2008-09, Open Doors conducted a snapshot survey last month of 238 colleges; 55% reported an increase in the numbers of students going abroad last fall, a sign that the 2008-09 decline could be a short-term blip. This is good news; we’ve got to make it more affordable and more professionally rewarding for students to study abroad because international experience is moving from “nice to have” to “must have.”

As originally published on Huffington Post on Nov. 16, 2010.

nov 12

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Living Abroad Has Its Challenges

Living in a foreign country excites the imagination, ignites the adventurous spirit, and inspires you to explore. It can also scare the pants off you. Learning to live in another country is more than simply learning to get to the office, making yourself understood in a local language, and eating different food. You have to learn how to do many new things while unlearning old that have become second nature.  You must accept your new home on its terms – not yours.  Living abroad successfully also involves a subtle but important change in your expectations of yourself and others. More importantly, you have to cope with the loss of identity and familiarity and get along without some of the personal perks in your life that provide encouragement, meaning and FUN!

And so every now and then when I read a piece about an expat sent abroad who discovers that “it’s not what I expected” or the spouse gives an ultimatum “me or the job” as noted in this article on “What To Do When Relocating Abroad” in Forbes, I’m baffled. Was it the allure of Paris? Didn’t anyone tell the spouse that there may be opportunities to ride in Paris – similar to those in New York City – but that it’s not the wide open grasslands of Texas?

With the sheer cost involved, both financial and human capital, why aren’t companies more selective in choosing the right employees and working with both the employee and spouse/partner to make sure it’s not a career buster?  Most of the large corporations I consult with on global relocation and cross-cultural management issues have wised up to the importance of preparing professionals.  So, too, are employees.  Although a stint abroad can do wonders for fast-tracking your career as I wrote in my book Get Ahead By Going Abroad, it can also be a career buster if you turn down an assignment, leave early, or don’t adapt or adjust to deliver for the company.

According to HR professionals I’ve worked with, a spouse’s reaction to the relocation is the number one reason such international transfers are successful or not; a spouse’s happiness is critical to your ability to do your job.  I know. My husband was a “trailing spouse” – a terrible term – when we moved to Hong Kong years ago. He left a job as a researcher/writer at Washington, D.C.-based environmental think tank to follow me and my career. He had rough ride at first, trying to find a job working on environmental issues (no green movement in sight at the time) and so he reinvented himself as a travel writer. It was a great gig that took him all over Asia spending time in the Kingdom of Brunei, watching the orangutans in the forests of Borneo, and biking through most major cities in China.  But he had to make it work. He did it for me and, when my three years was up, he asked that I not extend or move on to Tokyo or Kuala Lumpur.  I agreed despite my desire to continue globetrotting.

I grew to appreciate that because we had left our network of family and friends behind, the two of us became everything to each other, which was a bit overwhelming.  Moreover, it’s usually even harder on the spouse because the employee has work, colleagues, activities – an instant culture into which to assimilate.  A partner has to begin everything from scratch – that’s tough enough with an in-country relocation and even harder in another culture, possibly even a second language.

But we can learn from others.  In Get Ahead By Going Abroad, I interviewed more than 200 professionals who moved abroad, soliciting common advice on issues critical to a successful stint working abroad.  One of these is to make sure that you and your spouse take a look-see trip if at all possible. Imagine yourself living there, how would your life fit into your new home city. What would be different, perhaps the same.  And then, once you move, another critical piece of advice involves how to handle your first week on the ground because many times this first week sets the tone for the overall experience, kind of like first impressions; they’re hard to get over.  To enhance a great first impression, make sure you do the following six important things the first week on the ground without going into the office, if at all possible:


  • Nail down your personal must haves, be it a gym, a massage therapist or a particular brand of coffee, appreciate the importance of those “little things.”
  • Make contact with at least one other international contact, who can be an on-the-ground source of information and assistance.
  • Make sure you have at least one local contact, because sometimes only local help will do.
  • Familiarize yourself with the transportation system be it your own car, the subway or a system of commuter trains.
  • Set up house with the clothes you have, photos and stock the fridge to begin to make it like home.
  • Explore your new home, get a feel for the place, stroll the streets, be a tourist.

But it doesn’t stop here. There’s practical advice on the first month, the first year and so on – even practical and tried-and-true tips on ensuring a successful return.  Others have done it and successfully. Why not profit from their experiences to ensure the best outcome for your international assignment. It could be the difference between fast-tracking your career and fast-talking to save it.

Original Appeared on Huffington Post on Nov. 16, 2010.