300,000 American Students Will Study Abroad This Year. Ready? or Not?

In Go Abroad by Shelley Story

More than 300,000 U.S. students studied abroad in the 2013/14 academic year. That’s at least double the number who went abroad in 1999/2000, and more than triple the figure from 1989/90. This explosive growth means more students get the life-changing experience of living in another country while they’re still figuring out what they want to be when they grow up, which is wonderful. But it also means that their home university’s resources may not have scaled to match the increase in students applying to study abroad, the expansion of options in programs, and the logistical burdens of managing an ever-growing menu of faculty-led, short-term study trips to new destinations.

As multinational corporations have shrunk the world, studying abroad has practically become a requirement to students who hope to land jobs in one. The latest data show that over 60% of U.S. students going abroad major in STEM fields, business, or social sciences. Foreign language or international studies majors comprise only 7.8%. The vast majority of Americans studying abroad may therefore have little to no exposure to or knowledge of the language or culture of their host country before they arrive to spend weeks or months there.

These two conditions— more students going abroad with fewer resources for advising them, and more students going abroad without having an academic interest in the language or country— along with a host of other characteristics of American culture that I won’t address here, combine to mean that students may be less prepared for study abroad than we’d like.

This was certainly the case in my experience working full-time in a study abroad program in Florence, Italy, from 2006 to 2015. The 325 or so students who came through our doors each year were bright, engaged, and generally highly adaptable. Most of them could tell you story after story about their experiences in Italy — all positive. They’d say they had the time of their lives, and they learned more than they ever imagined possible.

But I have seen students struggle through the first days, weeks, even months of the term, and I’ve known students who made it through a full semester, but were elated to go home. I’ve wondered if — and how — we could help them prepare better for the experience of living abroad? There were always situations in which things could have gone better. Even in the absence of tragedy (though there were some of those, too), sometimes things were just okay. And when you’ve got 15 weeks counting down, you want things to be amazing! fantastic! terrific! You don’t want to get shut down by logistics, bureaucracy, or your own fear.

Over the years, I noticed some patterns.

Many students didn’t have a clear understanding of what they wanted out of the study abroad term. That made it more difficult to decide how to spend their time, and more frightening to do anything that challenged their comfort zone.

Some had no experience using public transportation, reading maps, converting currency, advocating for their own healthcare needs. Some had no experience being alone.

Their approach to engaging with strangers ranged from extremely cautious to indiscriminate. For the über-cautious, the result was never meeting a local during their stay. For those who trusted without reservation, it occasionally meant they got hurt (emotionally or otherwise) by someone they didn’t know well enough. At either end of the spectrum, the language barrier intensified the dynamic.

Some had little knowledge of the language or culture. So, when something went wrong, or was unpleasant and unexpected, they had no context in which to understand it, and no language with which to try to resolve it.

Seeing these issues aggregated over the years, I began to realize that they all arose from simple inexperience or lack of information. But everything that was missing was also teachable. With just a small investment of time and energy, students could be better prepared to seize opportunities and avoid frustration from day one.

In my next post, I’ll share some specific steps all students can take to get a head start on the deep learning available to them during a term abroad.