Most colleges and universities have study abroad programs. Through them, students are able to spend a portion of their enrollment years off-campus, studying in a foreign country. During the last decades of the 20th century, the number of study abroad programs increased by leaps and bounds. Today, thousands of U.S. students travel to countries, near and far, as they continue to work toward completing their degree programs.
Earlier on, the destination of the overwhelming majority of students was somewhere in Europe. Italy, France and Great Britain were usually considered among the most desirable locations. These days, however, students are venturing to ever more distant and/or exotic locales. India, China, and Brazil, for example, have seen appreciable increases in the number of students wanting to study there.
Most schools have traditionally encouraged their juniors to spend a year abroad. However, with community colleges (along with professional schools) jumping on the study abroad bandwagon, the proportion of juniors in the total populartion of students of U.S. origin studying abroad during any given academic year is steadily decreasing.
No matter what the grade level or age of students may be, they can all benefit from various aspects of a study abroad program.
First and foremost, being abroad places them in a society which may differ in unexpected ways from what they’re used to at home in the United States. For example, in Italy, students will note the heavier emphasis on family gatherings and meals taken together as a family. The comment of a visitor from Italy to the U.S. hits the nail on the head. When asked about differences she had observed about the way people live in the two countries, she noted that in the U.S., a student would call home to let a parent know that the student would be home for dinner, while in Italy, a student would call home to let her/his mother know that she/he would not be home for dinner.
Then, of course, there’s the opportunity to become profiicient, if not actually fluent, in another language. While English has become something of a universal language, people around the globe still speak in their native tongues, especially in family and social settings. Students from the United States will have an opportunity to increase their working vocabulary in the language(s) spoken in the cities and towns where they’re studying (and traveling) abroad. Gaining greater mastery of a language has a number of positive spillover effects.
For example, becoming aware of how people express themselves in their own language provides greater insight into their social and cultural values, not to mention their beliefs and ideas. Anyone who has become truly fluent in another language understands how difficult it can be sometimes to convey ideas fully and satisfactorily from one language to another. One way of taking note of this can be done by observing the way proverbs and cliched sayings are rendered in the host language (in contrast to what a person hears in English when at home). Hearing how others express the meaning behind such sayings as kill two birds with one stone or a rolling stone gathers no moss can be very instructive.
While abroad, most students travel as much as they can, both inside their host country and in other countries. That activity, too, serves to broaden their cultural horizons. It enhances also their understanding of their home country, especially as others perceive it. That knowledge can easily contribute to an appreciation for the reasons why people abroad may be critical of the United States, in terms of its actions politically, economically, and/or socially.
Clearly, students participating in study abroad programs stand to gain quite an education outside of the classroom during their time in another country. Additionally, if they make an effort to get to know residents of the host country, they’ll likely have acquired a slew of new friends by the time they have to return home.
On balance, there’s much to be gained by studying abroad. Fortunately, more and more U.S. students are becoming aware of that fact and are participating in such programs in numbers larger than ever.