Overcoming Obstacles to Study Abroad: The Fourth “C”

This year’s CIEE annual conference addressed the “three Cs” that are making it hard for our students to study abroad: Cost, Curriculum, and Culture. It was my privilege to speak at the luncheon, which was then devoted to working groups to come up with ideas on how to reduce obstacles in each area. Many good ideas were reported and will be shared as part of CIEE’s commitment to IIE’s Generation Study Abroad initiative, which also included a generous package of $20 million in scholarships and actions designed to help students throughout the United States to take advantage of international opportunities.

My talk focused on a fourth “C,” which could help overcome the other three: Champions. We need them for study abroad and to help students at every stage of the process. Freshman advisers need to plant the seed early and make sure students at least take the first step of applying for a passport. Faculty need to encourage and suggest ways a study abroad experience can fit into the curriculum at several different points and time. Coaches need to accommodate their athletes. Parents need to encourage their kids. And financial aid professionals need to work with students on how to make an international experience affordable. And, I suggested, we can help such champions at each step of the process to obtain information, scholarships, and know-how. In the Institute’s A Student Guide to Study Abroad there is a whole chapter devoted to the topic, and in the spring, IIE will also publish A Parent’s Guide to Study Abroad together with the AIFS Foundation.

I did not always believe in champions.

Perhaps like many in our field, I started from the premise that, if we built it, students would come to embrace the opportunity. We know from Open Doors® that, while study abroad numbers are rising, it’s still only a handful of students. We launched Generation Study Abroad to double the numbers by the end of the decade, because if we did not take action now, it would take another 35 years or so to reach that goal.

Just how important champions are in the process dawned on me one late fall afternoon at Oprah’s (and President Obama’s) favorite ice cream shop in Georgetown. The line there was very long and spanned many generations and professions. As fate would have it, the three women in front of my group were freshmen at Georgetown University. And they were talking about study abroad.

They were interested in studying Arabic and said they were having a hard time finding out how to do this. I immediately assumed that they were in business school or thinking of majoring in one of the fields at the College of Arts and Sciences that left little room for study abroad. I introduced myself, asked in which school they were enrolled, and if I might be able to help. Imagine my shock when the reply was “We are all in the School of Foreign Service.” It turned out they did indeed need some help. Giving it was the easy part, and Georgetown has a lot of resources. What it did not have, it turned out, were the freshman advisers and champions where they thought they could turn.

It has been a long time since I thought about freshman, and I am not sure I ever taught a single one in my career. What was gratifying to hear after my talk at CIEE was that many in the audience were just the kind of champions we and Generation Study Abroad need.