4 Critical Components of Contemporary Education Abroad
It is an interesting time (to say the least) for the world as well as for education abroad. In the coming months, there will be many shifts in US policy, legislation, and civic engagement – perhaps on a scale we have yet to recognize. What does this mean for the field of education abroad?
Further Reading: Community Building and Service Learning: 4 Key Questions to Consider
Below are four items that educators who seek to structure programs with dual values of relevant learning and global engagement should consider. These are by no means comprehensive, but can rather be used as points to reflect upon for as we go about our daily activities.
1. Quality mentorship and guidance
For a variety of reasons, mentoring and modeling are more important now than they have ever been. We have always had a responsibility as educators to develop critical thinking skills in our students. To actively listen, to challenge and engage respectfully, to promote civil discourse and to enable students to contemplate and dissect the validity of an argument are some of the most important tenets, in my opinion, of a well-educated citizen. In regards to education abroad specifically, the trend towards shorter and more structured programs means that students have less time to process what they’re experiencing in a new culture. Program leaders can help students achieve learning objectives and personal goals by including time for reflection, discussion, and guided activities before, during, and after their time abroad. It is incumbent upon us to facilitate opportunities for students to break out of the study abroad bubble, to test their own limits, and to have meaningful interactions with people from the host culture. It may be the only opportunity they have to engage in a conversation that doesn’t automatically reinforce their existing opinions.
To actively listen, to challenge and engage respectfully, to promote civil discourse and to enable students to contemplate and dissect the validity of an argument are some of the most important tenets, in my opinion, of a well-educated citizen.
With regard to junior education abroad professionals, it is also our responsibility to build bridges or ladders for colleagues to progress in our chosen field. Many of us found our way into education abroad as a profession by accident and benefited from a welcoming group of peers who have always been willing to share best practices and lessons learned. The field has become much more professionalized over the past few years with new professional certifications, like the one offered by the Forum on Education Abroad. It can be daunting for newcomers to find their way, and difficult to navigate one’s career path.
Personally, I feel it is my responsibility as a manager to provide opportunities for people to grow, to explore new areas in which they might excel, and to stretch themselves by acquiring new skills as a result of expanding their responsibilities. I regularly talk with individuals about career aspirations, and encourage and reward them for taking risks and pursuing their personal goals. Our field affords junior staff multiple opportunities for professional development through conference attendance and presentations; working groups that tackle issues across institutions; and training workshops and degree programs ranging from higher education administration to intercultural communication. We need to make certain that we provide the time, resources, and encouragement to develop the next generation of education abroad leaders.
Further Reading: Service Learning: A Microcosm of International Development (Part II)
2. Engaging in ethical marketing
To me, “ethical marketing” falls into two categories:
1. Making sure that an education abroad program is represented accurately and honestly. That includes descriptions of everything students will do during their time abroad, such as where and with whom they will live, how their activities will impact the local community, and what they can expect to learn and how they will learn it. Ethical marketing should help students make informed decisions about which programs are a good fit for them, their academic program, and possibly their future career plans.
Fair and equitable distribution of power, and respect in imagery and online representations should be the goal for ethical marketing of education abroad.
2. Ethical marketing can also include the representation of community members online and in print. Organizations should adhere to child and vulnerable adult protection policies when describing or picturing community members in their marketing materials. Too often we see images of undergraduate students portrayed as “experts” delivering information to much older community counterparts or poor children displayed in deficit-oriented, value-laden situations. Fair and equitable distribution of power, and respect in imagery and online representations should be the goal for ethical marketing of education abroad.
Further Reading: Service Learning: A Microcosm of International Development (Part I)
3. The creation of learning objectives for every education abroad program
This is absolutely critical if we practitioners are going to enable students to maximize the impact of their experience before, during, and after their program abroad. The following are points to consider when approaching this process with the goal of engaging students and creating a true community of learners:
- Prepare students before going abroad by providing relevant and timely readings, websites, video clips, movies, music, etc;
- Set appropriate expectations for an engaged and respectful community of learners;
- Utilize thought-provoking discussion questions and create a safe space to ask sensitive or difficult questions;
- Provide feedback on student work in a timely manner so that it can inform the rest of the student’s program before it’s over;
- Allow time for students to reflect on their experience during the time abroad and after they return home;
- Tweak programs to continually improve quality based on evolving learning objectives as well as faculty, student, and host community feedback;
- Give community members or hosts an opportunity to share their perspectives with students;
- Clearly state learning goals at the outset of the program, reviewing them with students and developing appropriate activities to achieve the desired outcomes;
- Explain to students how all the different components of their program are connected.
4. Awareness of the current climate in the US
This point includes the need for political, social, and economic awareness/participation, as well as the growing need for an integrated global perspective into every student’s college experience.
In his 2017 annual letter to shareholders, General Electric’s Co.’s CEO, Jeffrey Immelt, recently wrote, “There is deep skepticism toward the ideas that powered economic expansion for a generation, with concepts like innovation, productivity and globalization being challenged and protectionism on the rise. We still see substantial opportunity to grow around the world by investing, operating and building relationships in the countries where we do business.”
In 2010, IBM release a report gathered from interviews with 700 Chief Human Resource Officers. They cited as their most critical task: “To make the most of growth opportunities and unlock the potential of the workforce, CHROs will need to focus on three areas they say are highly important, but currently beyond their ability to achieve: developing future leaders, rapidly developing workforce skills and capabilities, and fostering knowledge sharing and collaboration.”
Despite nationalistic rhetoric and a historical tendency toward isolationism, America’s future economic success will almost certainly require a skilled, multicultural, multilingual workforce that can adapt to new technologies and work across time-zones more nimbly than ever. Today’s college students and their families know all too well the pressure they face in finding jobs that enable them to become self-sufficient while paying off their student loans and hopefully begin building their retirement portfolio. Their questions about ROI and the rising cost of higher education will not be going away any time soon and they deserve an honest answer. Despite the promises to bring back American manufacturing by nullifying or renegotiating trade deals, the fact remains that understanding people from other countries and being able to recognize and adapt their own behavior will be a critical success factor for our students.
Despite the promises to bring back American manufacturing by nullifying or renegotiating trade deals, the fact remains that understanding people from other countries and being able to recognize and adapt their own behavior will be a critical success factor for our students.
I would argue that there are several ways to achieve these skills but none better than being immersed in a different environment and finding out how to survive and thrive in it. Can students learn a bit about the world from their classmates hailing from other countries? Of course they can. But if they really want to understand how hard it is to leave family and friends behind, to succeed when the rules are unspoken and unwritten, to figure out who they are when no one knows–nor how to pronounce – their name, they have to go abroad.
Education abroad provides both a glimpse into the world around us while affording us a chance to look at ourselves from the outside.
In these starkly divided partisan times, talking with people in other countries may be the only contact any of us have with someone who holds an opposing political viewpoint. Of course, one can always stream MSNBC or FOX news on the laptop or mobile phones that no one would dare leave behind for fear of missing out on some big bit of news, or of being disconnected from home; but chatting with a local in the café, the pub, or the local park may just help our students see the U.S. and the world from a different perspective. Giving students the opportunity to think about their own beliefs while trying to explain them to someone else from someplace else, is a precious gift. Education abroad provides both a glimpse into the world around us while affording us a chance to look at ourselves from the outside. Our students – and our nation – need this critical self-examination if we hope to understand and appreciate our neighbors at home and abroad.
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