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International Exchange: Stepping Away from Cultural Tourism

Posted By Lily Lopez-McGee, Thursday, December 9, 2010
Updated: Thursday, July 21, 2016

Stepping out of a long tour bus, a group of American students work their way into the common area of a small non-profit in San Lucas, Nicaragua. After hearing the organization’s director speak about its work with the local community and the challenges facing Nicaraguan youth, the students ask a few questions and are hurried back out to the bus to make their next stop. The dialogue stops there. The students go on with their courses and are unlikely to discuss the organization or their experience again.

In preparing for international study, students are generally advised into setting academic and professional goals for what they would like to gain from their experience. Though these are worthwhile goals, rarely do you find that emphasis is placed on true immersion into the local culture.Instead what is often the case is that students are conditioned to act as cultural tourists.This means that though they live near local students, they interact primarily with other foreigners.This is in part due to the pre-departure readiness of students, but it is also a result of program design and implementation. In an ideal scenario, a program provider would integrate true immersion through activities that allow study abroad students to peer into the real lives of their local peers.

A relatively new documentary titled Crossing Borders demonstrates one director’s attempt to create such an environment for American students.The goal of the film is to “support the development of intercultural empathy and critical thinking skills, and initiate dialogue between students of different cultures” outside of the classroom. Director Arnd Wächter’s Crossing Borders documentary challenges the traditional approach of study abroad programs that place American students with other American students, a method that rarely results in students engaging young people from the host country. International exchange should be more than simply taking classes in a different country; it should be an opportunity to truly exchange ideas, experiences and beliefs to better understand our differences, and more importantly, share our similarities.

Through the documentary, Wachter tries “to overcome the artificial separation between ‘Us’ and ‘Them.’” In a system where economic, diplomatic, and military exchanges require a deeper cultural understanding of one another, international programs should work to expose participants to other cultures and ways of thinking not only through academic training but also through personal interactions with the local community. Homestays and cultural site visits alone cannot take the place of thoughtful conversations between study abroad students and their peers in the host country.

In addition to offering students on both sides the opportunity to explore other perspectives, students are able to reflect on their own beliefs, experiences, and ideas - something Karen Rodriguez describes as “an awareness of how one is informed by one’s own culture and makes sense of cultural differences subjectively.” These skills - empathy and critical reflection - though hard to measure, are imperative to a student’s successful entry into a global job market.

As educators, program providers, advisers, and mentors, we must encourage young people to have these conversations. There is a great opportunity to change the way young people see the world and communicate with those who think differently. Moving away from cultural tourism and stepping toward models of true cultural immersion will have a positive long-term impact on the next generation of international leaders.

Lily Lopez-McGee currently serves as Program Manager with the UNCF Special Programs Corporation in the Institute for International Public Policy division. Among her many duties, Ms. Lopez-McGee manages student internships, language institutes and social media outreach.  She is fluent in Spanish and has traveled through parts of Latin America and Western Europe. She is a graduate of the University of Washington Evans School for Public Affairs, where she earned her Master's of Public Administration.

Tags:  100000 Strong Initiative  AID Roadmap  career  China  culture shock  Diversity  International Exchange  International Students 

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Funding for International Education: Why It's Important

Posted By Lily Lopez-McGee, Wednesday, November 3, 2010
Updated: Thursday, July 21, 2016

With tuition rates on the rise and budget cuts to nearly all areas of spending in higher education, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that international education programming support has come under increased criticism and funding is at a serious risk of being reduced. Some political candidates have even stated publicly their intent to cut spending in the some “75 internationally focused programs that fall under the U.S, Department of State and U.S. Department of Education”. If nothing else has, this recent attack should mobilize professionals in the field to effectively communicate the importance of international education programming to the general public while ensuring that current support is being used effectively.

If we are to effectively defend against current threats to international education spending cuts, though, we must first take a serious look at the source driving criticism. We must face the reality that we are experiencing one of the worst economic crises since the Great Depression.This crise has been felt in all sectors of society and many of our offices have already experienced cuts to staff, budget, travel, etc.However despite this reality we must also remind ourselves and others that we have an economy that is inextricably connected to global markets. That means we have to develop and train language -proficient, culturally competent professionals. Furthermore, we should better champion the message that proclaims the current funding for international education programs is crucial to maintaining the U.S. economic strength and security.

There are certainly people who will be skeptical in hearing this message, however it is clear that if we don't fund opportunities that prepare U.S. students to be competitive in the global market, other nations will look to fill that void. There are 670,000 international students from across the globe studying at our institutions of higher learning in the U.S. alone. This number far exceeds the 260,000 U.S. students we send abroad annually (IIE 2009 Open Doors Report), a figure that clearly indicates the need to expand opportunities for students to go abroad.

As a nation, we need to encourage students to pursue language and study abroad that will prepare them for a globally-competitive job market. The current Open Doors figures highlight that we must also place particular focus on expanding these opportunities to underrepresented student groups. As a field, international education should not only expand how many students we send abroad, but also widen the types of students who have access to international opportunities. There is a vital need to send students abroad who represent the diversity reflected in our nation, and now is certainly not the time to reduce funding that currently supports those initiatives (ex. Gilman ScholarshipRangel Fellowship, and Institute for International Public Policy Fellowship).

After we have spread the message of why funding for international education programming is important, next we have to re-examine how we are utilizing the current support we receive.

Similarly, to justify that the current spending is meaningful in these tough economic times, we need to make sure current funding is working efficiently and demonstrates that students are benefiting academically, socially and professionally from these programs. We need to provide concrete evidence, in the form of program analysis that highlight the real impact of these programs. Programs should be evaluated in a meaningful way that holds faculty and providers accountable for the successes and shortcomings of their programs, and not simply to produce data. If we are to protect the future of international education funding, we must take the necessary, sometimes difficult, steps to ensure that every dollar spent on such programs is effectively being used.

International education is critical to developing the next generation of leaders, and we as international educators need to support initiatives that protect current spending while promoting innovative approaches to attracting more public and private support in these areas.

Lily Lopez-McGee currently serves as Program Manager with the UNCF Special Programs Corporation in the Institute for International Public Policy division. Among her many duties, Ms. Lopez-McGee manages student internships, language institutes and social media outreach.  She is fluent in Spanish and has traveled through parts of Latin America and Western Europe. She is a graduate of the University of Washington Evans School for Public Affairs, where she earned her Master's of Public Administration.

Tags:  career  Funding  global education  International Exchange  Outreach  professional skills  Resources  Scholarships 

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Changing the Face of International Educators

Posted By Administration, Thursday, October 28, 2010
Updated: Thursday, July 21, 2016

As the international education field strives to address issues of diversity and equity, what we cannot overlook is the lack of diversity among international education professionals. The demographic of international educators does not reflect the diversity of the students we aim to serve. Given that so many education abroad professionals are former study abroad participants themselves, the lack of diversity in the study abroad student population has a direct impact on the demographics of professionals in the field. The implications of this cannot be ignored. While we recognize that direct outreach to underserved students and their parents is essential to diversifying education abroad, it is equally clear that these students and parents may respond more favorably to advisors and education abroad representatives with whom they can identify.

Although I do not subscribe to the notion that one has to share the ethnic background of a student to effectively advise them, I do believe that these connections can enhance the relationship between advisor, student and their parents. This is particularly true when working with parents of first generation students and of students from certain ethnic backgrounds. That said, the reality is that few institutions are in the position to maintain a professional staff that reflects the diversity of the students on their campus and despite recent growth in international education, the number of diverse applicants for new positions remains relatively low. So what can be done?

First, we have to look for opportunities to partner with professionals of diverse backgrounds at our institutions and leverage these relationships to assist in reaching underserved students for international education opportunities. Although this does not directly diversify the field, it does help encourage more diverse students to study abroad by identifying its importance among diverse faculty and staff with whom students trust. Thus this increases the diversity among study abroad participants, which in turn increases the pool of potential candidates from diverse backgrounds for future international education positions.

We also have new opportunities to diversify the field each time an international education position becomes available, be it study abroad, international student services or other international education positions. When our administrative budget allows for a new hire, who are we encouraging to apply?Are promoting these opportunities to the same audience that we always have? By proactively promoting these opportunities to professionals who enhance and are committed to diversity, we will increase the number of diverse applicants for international education positions and we send a strong message to our peers about our institutions’ commitment to diversity among international educators. Many institutions have a diversity office that is responsible for maintaining a diverse workforce on campus. Be sure that you’re liaising with them when new positions open. Our colleagues in these offices can lead us to resources for reaching diverse candidates. There is also the Diversity Network Career Center, which was created as a platform for institutions and organizations that are serious and committed to recruiting diverse candidates to fill international education administration, faculty, and staff positions.

By creating and supporting efforts to diversify the field, collectively we can change the face of international educators and the study abroad students. This is no small task; it requires us to be open to new ideas and approaches in order to reach more diverse communities.The field of international education is comprised of creative, cosmopolitan and compassionate professionals who do this work, in large part, for the intrinsic value that it brings.As we look to the future, we must continue to display these qualities in our approach to diversifying the field of international education.

Andrew Gordon is the founder and president of Diversity Abroad. He is a graduate of the University of San Francisco, where he studied business, economics and Spanish. He has studied, traveled and worked throughout Europe, South America and Middle East. He started Diversity Abroad in 2006 with the focus of significantly increasing the number of non-traditional students who pursue international education opportunities.

Tags:  career  Diversity  Education Abroad Diversity  inclusion  International Exchange  Minority Students  mission  Outreach  professional skills  Resources  Study Abroad  Underrepresented Students 

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"We have to find ways to extend (global) opportunities to as many young people as possible"

Posted By Andrew Gordon, Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Updated: Monday, July 18, 2016

Michelle Obama gave a resounding endorsement of study abroad and global engagement during her recent commencement speech at George Washington University. The First Lady not only discussed the importance of study abroad and global experiences, but encouraged those graduates who had studied abroad to “convince the students behind you to try study-abroad programs — especially students from communities and backgrounds who might not normally consider it.”

What kind of students don’t “consider” study abroad? Turns out Michelle Obama (then Michelle Robinson) had been one.

“I grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, where the idea of spending some time abroad just didn’t register,” the First Lady told the 2010 graduating class. “My brother and I were the first in our families to go to college, so we were way more focused on just getting in, getting through, and getting on with our lives. So I just never considered that I needed to take an additional journey or expand the boundaries of my own life.”

Michelle Robinson Obama’s story is not unique. Many first-generation college students can relate to her experience; the idea of studying abroad just isn’t part of their academic plan. But that’s generally not the students’ fault — many of them lack awareness about the benefits and opportunities that study abroad can bring, and many think that study abroad just wouldn’t be possible for them.

If no one is informing and educating the students about the opportunities, how would they know? And if they don’t know about the benefits of study abroad, why would they go?

At a time when global engagement is more important than ever for young people, we as academic professionals must do our part to ensure that all students have equal access to global opportunities. 

This doesn't mean that all students will take advantage of study abroad and other international educational opportunities. It means that we must do our part to ensure that students and parents know about the availability of study abroad, how it could impact their lives, and then make it accessible.

Mrs. Obama summed it up by saying “As quickly as the 21st-century global economy moves, we have to find ways to extend those (global) opportunities to as many young people as possible.”

The “we” she speaks of includes all of the academic community. I invite all you to join me and Diversity Abroad as we work to increase diversity and access in study abroad and other global education programs.

Andrew Gordon is the founder and president of Diversity Abroad. He is a graduate of the University of San Francisco, where he studied business, economics and Spanish. He has studied, traveled and worked throughout Europe, South America and Middle East. He started Diversity Abroad in 2006 with the focus of significantly increasing the number of non-traditional students who pursue international education opportunities.

Tags:  education abroad  global education  study abroad 

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Diversification of the U.S. education abroad student profile is more important than ever

Posted By Administration, Monday, April 19, 2010
Updated: Monday, July 18, 2016

The diversification of the U.S. education abroad student profile is more important than ever. Since the Institute of International Education started collecting demographic data on U.S. students studying abroad for their annual Open Doors Report we have seen little change in the very low percentage of students of color studying abroad.This is very problematic on many levels.Additionally, Open Doors has collected and presented data on students with disabilities for two years now.What can professionals do to change the current trend of underrepresentation in education abroad?

Professionals in the field can work to diversify education abroad in many ways.First, we must continue to educate ourselves about this important issue by keeping up with the current research literature and data collection efforts in the field.While the amount of research on underrepresentation in education abroad is relatively small it continues to grow and we are seeing more advanced studies and methods employed in many recent and new studies.Additionally, we now have seventeen years of demographic data on the U.S. education abroad student profile in Open Doors that we can analyze.We can further educate ourselves by attending conference sessions specifically focused on diversifying education abroad at several of the international education related conferences held across the United States each year.Learning from our peers in conference sessions about their successes and failures in diversifying the education abroad student profile on their campus or in their organization is a very valuable exercise.Finally, if you are on a college or university campus it is important to learn the demographic make-up of your campus as well as the profile of your students who participate on an educational opportunities abroad.Knowing this basic data allows for a quick snapshot on the state of education abroad on campus.

In addition to educating ourselves we must reach out and educate our students on the value and importance of adding an education abroad opportunity to their higher education experience.This outreach takes many shapes and forms.Collaborating with Multicultural Affairs and Disability Services offices as well as with faculty and academic departments in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) on outreach and promotional efforts is a critical component in reaching student audiences that traditionally have not considered education abroad opportunities.Another helpful approach to engage the full student body into the international education conversation is to prepare promotional literature that shows a diverse group of students taking part in all of the education abroad opportunities available on your campus or with your organization.Finally, it is important to evaluate all of the education abroad programs offered to students and consider the feasibility of establishing a program that may draw the attention of students who may be interested in heritage seeking opportunities.This latter option is, of course, not always feasible but a quick analysis of your campus demographics might show otherwise.

It is so important for all of our college and university students to have an educational experience abroad if they so choose.Additionally, it is time for the world to see the wonderful diversity found in all of our students and for the world to understand that it is this diversity that makes the United States what it is today!

David Comp currently works as the Senior Adviser for International Initiatives in The College at The University of Chicago.  He has also consulted on several international education related projects for a variety of institutions and organizations in higher education.  He serves on the editorial advisory board of the Journal of Studies in International Education (JSIE) and edits and maintains International Higher Education Consulting Blog.

Tags:  education abroad 

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