Experience abroad has become not just a noteworthy entry on the resume of a job seeker in international affairs, but rather an expected component of the experience one brings in their overall application. In this light, it’s interesting and heartening to note the Institute of International Education’s annual Open Doors data, the 2008 version of which was released last week. Specifically, I was pleased (and not surprised) to see that the number of U.S. students studying abroad continues to rise:
Recognizing the importance of an international education in today’s global society, U.S. students are studying abroad in record numbers…the number of Americans studying abroad increased by 8% to a total of 241,791 in the 2006/07 academic year…This latest increase marks a decade of unprecedented growth in the number of American students receiving academic credit for their overseas academic experience, with an increase of close to 150%, from under 100,000 in 1996/97 to nearly a quarter of a million in 2006/07.
It’s also significant that more and more students are studying in “non-traditional” locations—IIE points to China, Argentina, South Africa, Ecuador, and India as the most popular of these locations. [When I was in college, 1998-2002, going to Ireland or France seemed like a pretty big deal. Students in college in 2008 now think nothing of heading off to Qatar or Uganda or Cameroon. While I paced endlessly, wringing my hands over a decision to go to France, my younger brother had no qualms about up and going to Ghana for two summers. I'm humbled by what is either my pre-modern mindset or just a lack of balls.]
But anyway, poring over all this data also reminded me of something the director of my study abroad program in Angers, France, Paul McDowell, told me when I saw him last week at Notre Dame (I was visiting to speak at a College of Arts and Letters event on international careers). He noted that while the total number of students studying abroad continues to rise in significant ways (a positive thing), the number of students studying abroad for an entire academic year has plummeted dramatically (a very negative thing, in his mind). He pointed to the fact that this academic year only 30 Notre Dame students applied to study for the year in ALL study abroad programs. When I was with him in Angers in 2000, our program alone had more than 30 ND students. A precipitous decline, for sure.
The Open Doors data supports this anecdotal evidence. Or at least it shows that 95.1% of American undergraduate students studying abroad choose to do a short-term (usually 8 weeks or less) or a mid-length (one semester) program, while only 4.9% opt for a long-term program (an academic or calendar year). [I'd like to compare these numbers with the 2000-01 numbers, when I was studying abroad, but those detailed figures aren't available on IIE's website...I'll try to track them down some other way.]
So while it seems that study abroad numbers are going up and the importance of it for a global career (for any career) is being ingrained more and more, in fact students might actually be getting less cumulative time abroad than in previous years. Paul blamed the obsession with resume-building for this phenomenon—students are doing more things for a shorter time in order to build a vast quantity of experiences, including perhaps more than one short-term experience abroad. But for Paul, by simply focusing on the quantity of abroad experiences, students might not be getting all that they can out of an international experience, and are thus not preparing themselves as well for an international career. He believes the quality of an abroad experience is what’s essential. And a quality abroad experience is total immersion, a substantive, deep, beyond-just-knicking-the-surface-and-getting-drunk-in-a-few-foreign-countries experience. You need to be able to—and employers want to know you can—function and function well in foreign lands and foreign cultures. Limiting your stay in a country to only a few weeks or months when you could do a year or even more might not be the best move in this regard.
I tend to agree with Paul. My two experiences abroad (France during college, China after college) were both a year in duration and, looking back, I know these experiences would not have been as formative or useful to my international career if I had only been there for a semester. Many of those who studied with me in Angers but only did so for a semester all still opine that they wish they’d done the whole year. A few months just wasn’t enough. They were only just getting comfortable, only just getting good with the language, only just feeling like they were beginning to understand the place. And then it was time to go home.
But even so, I suppose it’s true that simply staying in a place for a longer period of time doesn’t automatically equate to a deeper or more substantive experience. I know plenty of people who studied abroad for a year but only ate Burger King. I know that my brother was in Ghana for only a total of a few months, but the experience has been deeply formative for him.
The key ends up being, I guess, to know yourself and to engage the program that is right for you. And while you are abroad, whether it’s a few weeks, a few months, or a year, be engaged. Don’t be a long-term tourist.