University of Edinburgh:
Study Abroad in Edinburgh
- University of Edinburgh
The number of American students studying abroad is on the rise, and that is a very good thing. But more than just increasing the numbers, colleges would be well advised to take a hard look at their study-abroad programs to ensure that they are providing students with a quality international-study experience at an affordable price. Too many programs are unnecessarily expensive, and many of them don’t help students acquire the cross-cultural skills necessary for long-term career success across a broad spectrum of fields.
Today’s students increasingly recognize that study abroad is one of the best ways they can acquire the valuable international experience necessary to work in the 21st-century global marketplace. What they don’t realize is that all study-abroad programs do not help them equally in this respect. In an effort to satisfy the growing demand for international experience, colleges naturally highlight their commitment to global education. But how global are they?
Far too many institutions seem to equate global education with study abroad; many of them have established “centers” for global education or global studies that function primarily as the study-abroad office. Although studying abroad is an important component of global education, true global education encompasses much more.
Certainly, any time spent studying abroad is valuable and can help a student become more globally competent, but programs vary widely in their ability to help students gain the depth of knowledge that should come with true global learning. Research conducted over the past 10 years and discussed in the 2012 book Student Learning Abroad: What Our Students Are Learning, What They’re Not, and What We Can Do About It,edited by Michael Vande Berg, R. Michael Paige, and Kris Hemming Lou, shows that far too many undergraduates who study abroad are not learning and developing in ways that were common as recently as a decade ago.
One of the shortfalls identified in the book is the lack of engagement — both before students go abroad and after their return — between professors (or study-abroad leaders) and students, with the intention of explaining and helping students interpret their experiences. This interactive process is just as crucial to students’ cross-cultural learning as the experience itself. Although colleges try to prepare students by providing orientations, suggesting websites to visit, and recommending country-specific information to review, this is not nearly enough to prepare students for the experience they are about to have.
Research I conducted in conjunction with the Institute of International Education for A Student’s Guide to Study Abroad indicated that only one-fourth (out of a total of 350 students on more than 250 campuses) of students were provided with any cross-cultural training before they left, while only a little more than one-third were offered the names of fellow students who had gone to the same host country. And only one-fifth of respondents to my survey said they had been offered books or travel guides with cultural information specific to the country or region to which they would be traveling. Mandatory re-entry or reintegration classes were reported as minimal, although many colleges encouraged students to join re-entry gatherings.
These statistics are troubling. When students go abroad, they land not only in another country but in another culture. It can’t be seen, but it can be felt: different values, behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes shared by a society and shaped by its environment. The culture is expressed in feelings, judgments, and mental constructs that are typically subtle in nature. If students don’t know to be aware of culture, they won’t be able to respond appropriately, perhaps even inhibiting their ability to communicate.
To that end, all study-abroad programs should mandate cross-cultural preparation, training, and reintegration programs — but far too many don’t.
In an effort to determine why not, I followed up with many study-abroad offices and administrators. Not surprisingly, cost is a big concern. The programs are already expensive, and to add training by cross-cultural experts before and after is deemed to be prohibitively so. Time is another factor; both the limited time students have before leaving and that of the overstretched departments advising students before they go abroad and helping them upon their return.
But perhaps most unsettling was that many study-abroad advisers and administrators didn’t think anything more than the general orientations and returnee welcomes already being provided were necessary. This directly contradicts what academic research has shown and what thousands of students have told me over the years.
The vast majority of students I have asked about cross-cultural preparation said they wished that they had been better prepared to deal with cultural differences when studying abroad. When I asked why, most said they felt confused by interactions with local people and didn’t understand what was happening in social situations. Many of the students I interviewed said they felt so uncomfortable that they increased the amount of time they spent with fellow Americans and on social media with friends and family back home — the opposite of what they should have been doing.
Most students reported even greater difficulties and lack of support upon returning home. They felt less comfortable with their new selves on their old campuses and had trouble reintegrating. They didn’t understand how to leverage their experiences abroad to help them in their remaining studies and in their lives after graduation, whether academically or professionally.
Once you have made the important decision to study abroad, it is important to find the very best place for your dream adventure. Regardless of whether this is a once-in-a-lifetime trip or a one-in-a-billion trip, finding the ideal location is a big process.
But the world is large and glorious in all its wonder!
There are approximately 200 countries in the world, and almost all of them offer at least one collegiate institution for you to study in. So many options, so little time! It’s mind-boggling how study abroad can open your horizons and offer you the world on a silver platter.
So making that final decision of where to go can be a bit tricky and stressful. To help you out, I’ve talked with several study abroad students and drawn up a list of ten different considerations that can help you narrow down the choices.
It seems a bit petty, but money tends to be the first element worth considering when choosing your program. Studying abroad is hardly inexpensive, but some countries and cities can take less out of your bank than others. For example, China and Korea have somewhat similar cultures and many similar programs; however, Tianjin is statistically cheaper by far than Seoul. And Japan can run at New York costs if you stay very long. So look at the cost of living for your country choices, not just the cost of tuition!
Some places make it easier than others to travel around a bit. People who travel to Europe are pretty free to hop on a train and set off all around the many nearby countries. The trip from Paris to Berlin in hardly worth mentioning, and maybe next weekend, you could pick up Spain or Switzerland? South-East Asia is similar in some respects (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, China, India, etc.); however, keep in mind VISA costs and requirements. On the other hand, Hawaii is a lovely state, but travel to other places is hardly easy. Same is true of most islands or isolated countries. The middle of Russia is beautiful, but you’ve got a ways to travel to get out of it. Moscow on the other hand, might be a possibility.
Most students think of spending all their time with one program, but did you know it’s possible to do more than one if you plan it right? One summer, I picked up consecutive programs in Japan and China, spending the week in between relaxing in South Korea. I carefully shopped around the different programs and found two that were close in time, but not overlapping. Since I stayed in Asia, I wasn’t paying extra flight costs, it was just a matter of applying and being accepted to both programs. Think about the possibilities!
As I’ve said before, Study Abroad isn’t entirely about the program itself. Look into locations where you can pick up an internship or two. Maybe you know someone there who will give you a job or let you trail them at work. Places where you can see some history and culture; watch some current major events; maybe even contribute some help of your own like a mission or volunteer program.
Preemptively, you picked study abroad because it will benefit your career in some way. Mostly for the fun sure, but there should be some small piece of you that’s hoping this will help your future. So think about places that will offer the most resources. If you are interested in Asia-focused topics (languages, history, economy, government), then don’t look at European schools. On the other hand, if you are all about Brit lit, the EU system, the debt crisis in Greece, Renaissance art, etc. then maybe Europe is the place for you. Once again, think about places where you can get internships, visit relevant businesses, interview beneficial contacts, do some networking.
This one is obvious, but worth noting — are you interested in learning a foreign language? If the answer is no, then stop. Go look at programs in countries that speak your language. There are tons of places that speak Chinese, French, English, Spanish, Arabic, etc. Just find one in your language and go with it. If language-learning is not part of your study abroad goals, then don’t bother with the stress. On the other hand, if you think learning a foreign language will be helpful or you want the adventure, then stop looking at countries that speak your language and find one with a language that looks interesting to you.
Of course, you can’t forget to look at the program itself. In fact, it might be one of the first things to look at if it’s at all important to you. Despite what it seems like, study abroad programs aren’t all alike. There aren’t a million of every kind in every single country. For example, I studied law, and there aren’t law school programs everywhere in Asia. I had to shop around before I found one in Korea at all. Options were very limited. Same is true of many other programs. Study abroad programs tend to be for the arts, business, or some sciences. Other programs, you may not have much of a choice. So before selecting the land of your dreams and getting your hopes up, make sure a program you need is available there.
How much time do you have to spend on this excursion? One week? Three weeks? Five months? Trust me, you don’t want to waste your big opportunity spending a whole semester at a school in the middle of no-man’s-land with little means to get out. One week there, meeting the locals and becoming familiar with traditional customs? Might be a lot of fun! If you have a lot of time, I recommend picking a place that has several nearby places you can visit that interest you.
Of course, keep in mind your own safety. There are a lot of countries that I have always wanted to visit, but I really don’t think are safe right now. For example, I’ve always wanted to see the Sphinx and Pyramids and parts of Africa, but Egypt and Nigeria have had some problems. As a single, white Christian female, I may want to find a different country for now. Or think about the places that are having bad disease outbreak. Maybe there are places for you that are less safe than others; don’t risk your life recklessly just for a fun experience.
Don’t forget to think about your dreams. If there is that one place that you’ve always wanted to check out, now would be the perfect time. I once visited China with a friend who can specifically to see Pandas in their natural habitat. She loved, breathed, and lived pandas, and this was just a major dream for her. Of course, the program was good for her too, but she really came for the pandas. And that’s okay too!
Life is about being happy, finding the things that light up your world, making a difference, and reaching the dreams that lay deep in your heart. Take this time as the opportunity to do that – find the place you love, that home away from home. And enjoy the heck out of it!