Education Abroad: Moving Out of the Classroom and Into the Real World

More and more US students are seeking out short-term jobs, internships, and volunteer work overseas, and with good reason. Overseas employment and volunteering has big appeal.  Working in another country gets students out of the classroom and into the community.  They interact not just with professors and other students as they might with traditional study abroad programs, but they get to engage with workers and community members at all ages and stages of life and in a variety of settings.

Data collected by Open Doors® show a sharp increase in the reported number of students engaged in work, internships, and volunteering abroad (WIVA) over the past four years.  In 1999/00 there were just 5,584 students engaged in these kinds of extra-curricular activities abroad.  By 2006/07 that number grew to 8,584, and has almost tripled in the past four years to reach a total of 25,080 students engaged in WIVA both for-credit and non-credit in 2010/11.

Open Doors has been collecting data on US students’ work, internships, and volunteer experiences abroad since 2000 through its annual Study Abroad Survey of approximately 1,700 US colleges and universities. The Open Doors survey first included a question on internships and work abroad for academic credit in the 1999/00 survey, receiving a response rate of 22 percent in that first year. In 2010/11, an additional question on non-credit WIVA was added and received a response of 21 percent. The response rate for the WIVA question has slowly climbed over the past ten years, reaching a combined response rate of 50 percent for the for-credit and non-credit questions in the 2010/11 survey.

The relatively low response rates to the WIVA questions in Open Doors suggest that US higher education institutions face significant institutional barriers in gathering information on international experiences that fall outside the traditional academic study abroad model. While most institutions have a good idea of how many students are engaged in academic study abroad, it is less common for them to track students’ extra-curricular overseas experiences.

Many institutions do not collect data on the full range of international academic mobility that occurs on campus, so they are not able to report those numbers. IIE’s Center for Academic Mobility Research (CAMR) recently conducted a survey of US students’ education abroad in China, which found that 80 percent of the 563 responding institutions were able to report on academic study abroad, but only 42 percent were able to report on internships and work abroad, and only 35 percent were able to report data on volunteering abroad.

One difficulty in collecting data on extra-curricular academic experiences abroad is that such activities are not necessarily coordinated by the institutions’ study abroad offices, but are often coordinated directly by faculty, academic units, service learning offices, and career advising centers. The data for the China study were gathered from a wide range of offices, including study abroad offices, institutional research offices and registrars, academic units, dean’s offices, student services, scholarship offices, and libraries, among others. The range of institutions that housed data on students’ experiences abroad illustrates the complex task for institutions in collecting such data.

Another complication in tracking WIVA students is that they have the ability to arrange their work or volunteer experiences independently and without the knowledge of their institutions. A number of resources are now available to help students independently navigate the terrain of arranging an overseas experience, including third-party education abroad providers, internet resources, and guidebooks like IIE’s forthcoming A Student Guide to Study Abroad.

WIVA experiences offer students numerous educational opportunities outside of the classroom. There are countless educational, professional, and personal intercultural lessons to be learned as students engage with a foreign corporate culture, tutor needy children, or teach English to working adults in another country. These experiences provide global perspectives that students bring back to their universities when they return home, enriching the education of all students. WIVA also increase students’ intercultural competencies, which provides them valuable skills and international exposure that will help them in the job market after graduation. The growing popularity of WIVA points to the need to collect data on the full range of students’ educational experiences abroad. Several colleges and universities, motivated by risk management concerns, have begun efforts to track these students using travel registry systems, which show promise for alleviating the burden for institutions in collecting data on all types of educational activities abroad. Improved tracking of students engaged in WIVA can help us understand how many students are seeking out these kinds of education abroad experiences so that universities can better serve these students and leverage their international experiences in campus internationalization efforts.