Feb2320096:49 am

Single country v. multicountry study abroad? The debate rages.

After looking at the 2008 Open Doors data and returning from a speaking gig at Notre Dame,  I brought up up the issue of short-term v. long-term exchange programs: which allows for a more in-depth, formative experience, especially for a career in international affairs? An article by Charlotte West in the latest International Educator brings up a related and equally important issue: single country v. multicountry study abroad and, again, which allows for a more in-depth, formative experience?

The article is definitely worth a read (it’s in downloadable PDF format on the NAFSA website, if you’re not a subscriber), as it lays out in plain detail the pros and cons of each model, as well as examples of multicountry study abroad programs that seem to be designed rather effectively, providing much more than a whirlwind tour that relegates students to studying tourists. West lays out the familiar arguments and debate by quoting a student who participated in a multicountry program:

In a single country over an extended period of time, one probably gets the benefits of really grasping the language and deeply indulging in the local culture. Yet, when one gets to see many different cultures they can better grasp the magnitude of the beauty which this world has to offer.

West goes on to comment that “one of the main arguments against multicountry programs is that full immersion is the best way to truly learn a language and a culture. However, studying in a single country is no guarantee that immersion will actually occur. In many cases, foreign students are grouped together in the same classes, held in English, and have little contact with the locals.”

West is right on here. Length does not always add up to a quality experience (I think about the classmate I knew who spent a year in Madrid, yet refused to eat Spanish food the entire time and only spoke Spanish if he absolutely had tonot exactly what the program was hoping for him to do, I don’t think).  Certainly the quality of a programi.e., the manner in which it facilitates deep student interaction with the host country and its peopletrumps the length of time in terms of importance.

And as West’s article illustrates, there are compelling arguments for both lengthy immersion in a single country and for shorter experiences in multiple countries: singular cultural depth v. cross-cultural comparison; deep language study v. regional expertise; etc. I find it hard to argue for one model over the other, as certainly so much depends on the needs and wants of the individual and the quality of the particular study abroad program.

Still, one thought kept coming back to me: I worry that students who plow through numerous countries on a multicountry study abroad program will miss out on the deep understanding and self-understanding that I think develops when living in a single foreign country for a long period of time. True, students on immersive, well-developed multicountry programs are certainly coming away more knowledgeable about the places they’ve visited and hopefully have had interactions with locals and can now understand and empathize with those people and feel more deeply connected to these countries than ever before. All of these are fundamental goals of study abroad and very good things.

But I have this nagging feeling that West’s article, and this discussion in general of single country v. multicountry study abroad, ignores a very intangible aspect of what occurs when one lives/studies in another country for a lengthy period of time, an aspect I’ll rather clunkily (and somewhat cheesily) term “a discovery of self in relation to the other.” There’s something deeply formative that happens when you live in another country, surrounded by another language and completely foreign cultural context, and this begins to affect not only how you see you yourself and where you come from, but how you view yourself and your studies and your work in relation to the rest of the world and its people. Your scope becomes broader, your ability to empathize deeper, and these experiences shape your worldview, your values, and your choices (hopefully for the better) as you progress in your life. These things are far more intangible than learning a new language or gaining a regional political expertise, but they’re just as important and often only develop with a lengthy stay in only one place.

But then again, in reading the end of West’s article, I see that I’m focusing on all the wrong things. Says the faculty director of the University of Delaware program in New Zealand, Australia, and Hong Kong:

The major draw for students is Australia; it’s sunny and hot there in January—perfect for getting a suntan.

At least he’s keeping it real.

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