Michigan students who partake in study-abroad programs gain a world of knowledge as they're exposed to different cultures and languages — and become better global citizens
By Nancy Nall Derringer
Mention “study abroad” to a college graduate past age 50, and a very specific image comes to mind: A proper young lady, enrolled at an exclusive private college, packing her bags for one of the many perks of being brought up well, smart and, naturally, rich — junior year abroad. She’ll spend it enrolled in a European university, perfecting language skills that she may never use again except in French restaurants and Italian boutiques, soaking up the culture her own privileged world was built upon, until her return to the United States ready to finish school, go to work in an art gallery, and await her graduate degree (the fabled MRS).
It’s an image that has been outdated probably since Jacqueline Bouvier last wore white gloves, but it still casts a shadow over today’s college students, who may think of study requiring a passport as something for people who don’t need financial aid and already speak a second language fluently. But once they’re enrolled as freshman, they’ll start confronting today’s study-abroad options, and if they have any curiosity at all, the first thing they’ll do is apply for a passport.
Colleges today, public and private, are making study abroad easier and more affordable than ever, even for non-traditional students. Junior year abroad Jackie-style is still fairly rare, but more students are traveling around the world. The choices range from cultural tours and short-but-intensive three-week seminars in a foreign capital to longer stretches spent fully immersed in a university in Japan or Israel, going fully native.
Technology and freer immigration have made the world smaller. Globalization is a fact of life. Most universities strongly encourage — and some private schools require — overseas study as a way to make better global citizens out of potential graduates.
Kathleen Fairfax, director of study-abroad programs at Michigan State University in East Lansing, is proud of that school’s commitment to international education, the legacy of former president Peter McPherson. She says that in 1994-95, MSU sent 776 students abroad. In 2005-06, the number was 2,558 — among the highest of any public university in the country, she says.
The explosion in the interest of overseas study at Michigan State mirrors national trends; in the decade previous to 2006, national growth in such programs rose by 144 percent, according to the Institute of International Education.
MSU’s numbers are driven not only by the school’s commitment, but also by stretching the definition of what studying abroad is. As students leave for international destinations, MSU and other schools have responded by offering a wide variety of programs, most in the summer, that can take as little as three weeks to complete, but still offer course credit. Brevity, Fairfax says, is essential for many of today’s students, many of whom work to pay their own tuition, and who simply don’t have the time for a longer stay abroad.
“We make it pretty easy for them,” she says. “Classes are very focused.”
One school’s focused classes might look, to another, like a slightly more serious version of spring break under the Eiffel Tower. Fairfax doesn’t apologize for short stays, as there’s a wide array of programs to choose from.
The aim is to push students a bit, to get them “out of their comfort zones,” she says. Many MSU students are Michigan natives, solidly middle class and unlikely to have spent their early lives as world travelers. For a 20-year-old, even London can be a bit intimidating.
And many students make more than one trip. “They might start with Western Europe, and as they get more comfortable, they might try Africa or Asia the next time,” Fairfax says. “We get some criticism that doesn’t give a lot of respect for short-term programs in English-speaking countries. Some kids should be more adventurous, but if we didn’t have those programs, they wouldn’t go abroad at all.”
George Klein, who directs the overseas programs at Eastern Michigan University, agrees. EMU’s programs are designed around travel, and were put in place in the early ’70s by Emanuel Fenz, a “hugely passionate and dedicated history professor,” as a way of shrinking the aristocracy’s traditional Grand Tour down to a term manageable for middle- and working-class college students.
“They started as European cultural history tours,” Klein says, a “backpack-and-blue jeans” whirlwind of constant travel, anywhere from six weeks to an entire summer, concentrating on humanities and social science, art appreciation, history, political science, and other liberal-arts subjects. “You had the magic occurrence of being able to teach in locations where the history occurred,” Klein says. Classes were taught in the Roman forum, in Greek theaters, in London neighborhoods. Students slept in hostels and traveled as a group.
“We do it in Asia now. Students can go to China, Thailand, Vietnam,” Klein says. And if they’d like to lay their backpacks down for longer than a few days, EMU also offers semester or full-year exchange programs with partner colleges and universities around Europe, in Japan and Mexico.
Travel-study or short-but-intense programs are driving growth in international academia, but a few schools still follow the old model.
Wayne State University’s Junior Year in Munich program has roots that go as far back as the 1920s. After World War I, the University of Delaware started a foreign-study plan to promote international peace and understanding in the aftermath of battle. Then, in 1939, World War II broke out and that program was suspended. Eventually, Junior Year in Munich (JYM) found a home in Detroit on the campus of Wayne State. In 1953, the first JYM group in 14 years set sail for Europe and became the first study abroad to post-war Germany. For more than 50 years, JYM has been a bridge for students here to become students there, studying at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, one of Germany’s oldest and most-respected universities. Through wars, invasions, and Cold War tensions, JYM has had more than 3,500 “ambassadors” from more than 500 colleges participating in the yearlong program. One JYM alumnus is Jonathan Franzen, author of the award-winning novel The Corrections.
At Kalamazoo College, the private liberal-arts school in western Michigan, the program type also is a version of the traditional junior year abroad, with students spending at least two and sometimes three quarters of their third college year overseas.
Kalamazoo administrators consider it so essential to a well-rounded education that, while study abroad isn’t a requirement for graduation, nearly 85 percent of the college’s roughly 1,300 undergraduates will participate.
The school offers a range of programs, says Margaret Wiedenhoeft, associate director of Kalamazoo’s Center for International Programs. About half opt for Western Europe, exchanging with various schools there. The rest go to Asia, Africa, Mexico, and other destinations. The goal, Wiedenhoeft says, is to provide enough support that students can relax and learn, but still get far outside the culture they’re familiar with. That means they study primarily with other Americans, in English. But they’re not insulated.
In Thailand, for example, “they might study forestry practices in northern Thailand [in a classroom], and then get out and spend time hiking among Karen villages near the Burmese border,” she says. “Hike, talk, learn.”
Students may combine classroom work with community service in developing countries, but they’re not missionaries. “They’re exposed to that paradox between studying and helping outright,” Wiedenhoeft says. “They recognize that American standards, values, and customs are different from others, but we approach it academically first and foremost.”
So what do students learn? When the experience of being a student abroad can range so widely, what are the lessons?
“Kids get so much, it’s hard [for some] to talk about it coherently,” says EMU’s Klein. “Part of it is simply seeing firsthand things they’ve never seen before. The trips are literal eye-openers.” Michigan students attending college in their home state tend to go into study abroad with limited perspectives — and leave with a whole new outlook. “A student can see things he’s never seen before, and never thought much about, either, about the role of America in the rest of the world, and trying to see America through eyes of the culture you’re in.”
Carol Dickerman, director of the Office of International Programs at the University of Michigan, says the staff lives to hear one thing from returning students, and they hear it often: “This is the single best thing I did as an undergrad.
“It’s beyond just travel,” Dickerman says. “They’re not just skimming the top, but getting a level of engagement with the host country and culture that you don’t necessarily get when you’re traveling. We want them to notice differences in educational systems, family structure, etc. It gives them this window they never had before.”
And it’s something prospective employers value, as well. Today’s college students know the world they’re preparing to enter is very different from that of their parents’ at the same time.
“There’s a sense that simply knowing about your own culture and speaking your own language but nothing beyond that is not what the world is about these days,” Dickerman says. “From personal growth to professional development, study abroad affects virtually every aspect of everyone’s life.”
MSU’s Fairfax says much the same. “There aren’t many professions you can think of that won’t have a global component to them, if not already, then soon,” she says. But it’s not enough to simply list a few classes in Madrid on your résumé.
“What is it about study abroad that’s attractive to employers? Language fluency counts, but part of it is also learning to articulate what you gained abroad. Flexibility, cultural sensitivity, independence, independent thinking — if you can show you got baptism by fire via study abroad, that’s what we want to see as students unpack their experience.”
Sally Kantar, a Big Rapids native and 2005 MSU graduate, is probably the quintessence of several of these trends. She first traveled overseas, to the British Isles, as part of her journalism studies, touring newspaper offices, CNN International, and the BBC. But the experience goaded her to try not only studying, but also living abroad after graduation. Today she lives and teaches English in Thailand, after a stay in Japan. By e-mail from her new home, she described her journey:
“I came to Thailand in November because I have always wanted to live in a developing country and see for myself the challenges and rewards of being in a place so different from the life I am used to in the United States. Northern Thailand is probably one of the most ethnically diverse and interesting regions in Asia. I feel really lucky to be living here. And the food is amazing!
“... I think I used to see the world as being made up of regions and countries. Now, I try my best to see it more as a collection of communities. Living in a place is different from traveling there on vacation, because it’s like a real-life version of Google Earth ... you get to ‘zoom in’ on a small corner of a country and, over time, absorb details about the people who live there and the routines that permeate and define everyday life. If you are lucky enough to become a part of that, it’s a good feeling, because it means that you have proven that you can create a home in a place that once was only known to you for its foreignness.”
With her developing language fluency, she’s growing increasingly comfortable in Asia and doesn’t think she’ll be coming home for at least another year. But Kantar learned her lessons well: “I guess it wouldn’t surprise me if someday I looked back on my life and most of it was spent living outside the United States.”