The Methods of American Study Abroad in an International Context

by adriscoll /
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Sep 18, 2013 / 1 comments

America has failed to globalize. Not commercially, but socially. While cultures spread, beliefs systems are shared, and the world’s people begin to communicate, we have been leaving ourselves out. As a supposed ‘leader of the free world,’ our nation, and especially its youth, should be more involved with the rest of the world. However, there seems to be a broad lack of interest: only one percent of US college students study abroad. The few that do are a very specific group. The ‘Jane Doe’ American study abroad student is a Caucasian female in her junior year. More likely than not, she goes to Europe. She stays for around 6 weeks, then returns home. According to all the pamphlets she read, she will be a better job candidate, be better prepared for stressful situations, and be well rounded, on top of her new language skills and life experience.


Study Abroad

Photo: SLU Madrid Campus


Most of that is true. Study abroad courses do generally produce more well rounded students, and are generally very positive experiences for their participants. In fact, 95% of American study abroad students interviewed said that their study abroad programs have positively impacted the way they think and live. These same results have been reached over and over again. But study abroad is a continuously changing affair, the experiences have changed, and different approaches are  being taken.


From recent studies we are starting to learn what is important to effective language learning and cultural adaptation. The three most important aspects of study abroad are: duration of stay, local classes, and integration in local community.


The duration of study abroad trips is currently changing dramatically.


'In the 1950s and 1960s, 72 percent of respondents studied for a full year, but only 20 percent of respondents did so in the 1990s. The number of  students studying for less than 10 weeks tripled from the 1950s and 1960s to the 1990s.'


Even since the 1990’s, more and more people have been staying for shorter time periods due to rising costs, and more expensive locations.  A student traveling to Italy, for example, would have much heftier living costs than one traveling to Thailand or China, where life is significantly cheaper than at home. While studying abroad is beneficial in small doses, staying an entire year has a much more impressive effect than short trips. A yearlong trip gives students longer to adapt, and genuinely throw themselves in to the situation. That time allows them to distance themselves from the familiar and begin to seek out the uncomfortable, new, different situations and people.


The current trend towards shorter stays has created an environment that leads students to seek out the familiar, exactly what the program is meant to push you away from. In the last few years, college programs have become increasingly insular. Colleges are attempting to minimize both the costs and the discomfort that students sometimes feel in a new place. They’ve done this by creating groups of Americans that live, study, and travel together. A lesser number of groups means fewer teachers, which is cheaper. Unfortunately this leads to students spending time with each other rather, than the culture or people they are meant to be learning from and with. A large study from IES, a non-profit study abroad program, sent out questionnaires to all recent Study Abroad ‘graduates’.


'Findings also show that study abroad leads to long-lasting friendships with other U.S. students and still impacts current relationships. More than half the respondents are still in contact with U.S. friends met while studying abroad…'


As an expat, I can identify with the need for friends from home. Hearing your language after living so long without any sign of home, it’s natural to cling to whatever traces you find. Nonetheless, staying with fellow American students is not the way to learn about a culture or become fluent in a new language.  The same study validates that very claim, finding that 42% of students who had participated in a home stay were regularly using a language other than English, while only 18% of students who had lived with other U.S. students were still using another language other than English. Perhaps a happy medium, 32% of students who had lived in a residence hall with local students still practiced a language other than English. This showcases the most important aspect of study abroad: being genuinely embedded in the society you’re visiting.


Similarly, students who stayed at a local university and attended courses there in addition to their assigned college classes were more likely to experience long term language benefits, and were more likely to return to their original study abroad country. Attending the local university allows students to make more, and closer, local friends. 31% of students who took classes at a local university are still in contact with their host-country friends. Of those who did not take host country classes, 16% are in touch with host-country friends.


Aside from improved language acquisition, study abroad also provides students with an opportunity to see the world from a different perspective. Study abroad students showed comparatively much more “international political concern, cross-cultural interest, and cultural cosmopolitanism.” This is exactly the sort of attitude change that is needed. 


From the studies presented above, the ideal study abroad trip would be very hard to produce on the large scale on which they are now. Our friend ‘Jane’ would have a local home stay, and take her classes entirely from a local university. Her isolation from her own society would allow her to experience this new one more thoroughly, and allow her to connect to it. Jane would live with her family for a year, exploring the area, the culture, hanging out with local students.


Unfortunately this experience is hard to create. Despite the fact that only one percent of American students study abroad, a paltry 274,000, they go to a limited number of locations, run by a limited number of agencies and colleges. Each destination only has a handful of universities that accept study abroad students. Inevitably study abroad students will end up staying in the same place. Inevitably there will be some students who can’t, or don’t want to, stay a whole year.  While it may not be ideal, the system works this way so it can provide a service to as many people as possible as wholly as possible. 



Dwyer, Mary M. “”
Dwyer, Mary M. “” “”
Carlson, Jerry S., Widaman, Keith F. “”

Nafsa. "




Anne Driscoll is a member of the Youth Travel Blogging Mentorship Program




Comments (1)

  • Stasia Lopez

    10 years 1 week ago

    First, good job Anne! I have researched a lot on study abroad and interned in the field and there are continous trends. I'd like to take another spin on things. I think a lot of researchers often complain about "Jane Doe"  because this typical student wants to study abroad in Europe. I could argue that I was a lot like Jane. I studied abroad in Italy. I also was the first person to go to college in my family, I also raised all the money I needed to study abroad. I chose Italy because I knew nothing about my Italian heritage. I wonder if researchers ever considered that the fact that so many study abroad students choose Europe has more to do with the fact that many of our ancestry and roots stem from there and not just because "it looks nice." 

    I agree that we need to try and encourage many more students to study abroad. Many colleges and universities are also helping students who cannot or willnot study abroad by integrating them in international living/learning communities and encouraging participation in intercultural workshops. Then of course, collaborating with faculty helps with internationalizing the curriculum. Many students know their limits and choose a faculty-led study abroad program and feel more comfortable traveling with their professors and peers. Nothing wrong with that--if anything it could possibly encourage them to participate again in another program (semester or year). I would have LOVED to have stayed an entire year abroad or longer. I had to return back home though and make more money. However, even my short five months abroad changed me and my perspectives ever so much--even my career path. It led  me to do multiple internships in the international education field, it led me to doing research and publishing, it led me to attending conferences with NAFSA because I was so intrigued and like you, wanted to spread the word of study abroad. 

    I think the focus in our field should be not "where" someone chooses to study abroad (I'm happy the students are seriously considering going at all!) but more on the totality of an international exchange (even a buddy program on American campuses where international and American students are paired together to learn from one another.) I really believe in a short-term program can have lasting effects on a person. The statistics don't always allow us to know more about the background of students besides female or male and destination. Are they first-generation? Are they athletes? Why did they choose the destination they chose? If we paired both qualitative with quantitative facts, the studies done in our field would be much more wholesome and we can understand the trends much better. 

    Great job on your article! I hope it inspires more and more students to consider studying abroad (possibly more than once too!). :)  

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