Study abroad can profoundly improve education

This “opinion”: is respectfully put forth in response to the recently published column entitled, “Study abroad can take away from education.”

On behalf of the Study Abroad Office, we want to first and foremost thank the author for expressing his opinion on the matter of international education and its value to University students. The column reminds us, quite forcefully, that our office has a lot of work to do in order to continue dispelling myths, stereotypes and generalizations that revolve around studying abroad. We appreciate that it challenged our office’s beliefs on international education, experiential learning and intercultural competence, beliefs that our office finds innate and are rarely disputed amongst ourselves. As travel writer Chuck Thompson once wrote, “Sometimes it’s just as valuable to reaffirm your belief system as it is to disprove it.”

Thus, we also must use our freedom now to briefly express our beliefs, in the hope that the truth will be elucidated and that we can move forward on more agreeable and professional terms.

First, we believe the column is incorrect in stating that academic rigor is not on our radar. This university’s wealth of study abroad programs would not exist without the professors, faculty and deans that support it, which explains why we have a database of over 3,000 courses that have already been approved by the same professors teaching a 400-level Political Science class on campus. Professors and academic advisers are required to look at syllabi, coursework and essays and give an Illinois Equivalency for any course taken abroad on an Illinois approved program.

The SAO has no hand in approving or evaluating coursework; the professors, hired by the 61st best university in the nation, handle this task. If these vetted scholars do not approve of a course, or find university value in it, they will not approve it, and the student will not get credit for it. Please be assured, academic rigor is not sidestepped by studying abroad.

Additionally, from Argentina to the U.K., from Australia to Korea and from South Africa to Egypt, our students often need to work twice as hard in order to maintain their current GPAs at the University. Furthermore, they do this while struggling with language barriers (if interested, read “The Other Eden: Thoughts on American Study Abroad in Britain,” an “article”: focusing on culture shock in, yes, even the U.K.), balancing cultural differences and finding time to volunteer or take on internship positions at some of the top companies in France, Korea, Denmark, etc. Our students abroad do things that they simply cannot in the U.S. They take EKGs in the U.K. (in the U.S., students wouldn’t do this until medical school); they conduct field research and present their findings to the Ecuadorian government; they work for the Peace Corps in Senegal; they work in hospitals world-wide; and they understand oppression, dictatorships, inequalities and lack of cultural capital in a society in which they did not grow up.

In terms of professional benefits, we would strongly encourage any students questioning the value and essence of studying abroad to read May 2012’s Study Abroad “Newsletter”:, which addresses a myriad of topics for students to cover on their resumes and how to express their achievements abroad in an interview. Data from an article entitled Employer Attitudes toward Study “Abroad”: even states that when compared to a variety of other educational experiences, employers do in fact value study abroad.

Empirically, “playing in a fountain in Rome and eating delicious sweets in Salamanca,” is hardly everything our students are up to as one can gather at this point. In reality, these students achieve a school-life balance that affords them occasional travel on the weekends, yet, they have taken advantage of these opportunities while getting a 7 out of 10 on a paper (the best grade in the entire class of local students), volunteering at an orphanage, managing their budget, improving language skills and acculturating to their host city. Students do not need to balance two jobs and a full course load to look impressive to employers because their financial aid has traveled with them, and they have labored to get scholarships in order to fund their experience abroad. Many students even pay less than what the average student at Illinois does per semester because they spent extra time the previous term researching a program that was right for them both academically and financially.

When these students graduate, they will be hired sooner than those without study abroad experience, and with higher salaries than their counterparts who stayed on campus.

Returnees will be praised for flexibility and adaptability but also for being risk takers, more creative and more successful and productive when working in diverse cultural teams. In case students are looking for Advanced Statistics, upper level MCB courses or even Engineering courses abroad, they are offered as well. Studying abroad is no longer only for language or culture-focused majors.

As mentioned in the column, we agree that the inner city of Chicago, or elsewhere in this nation, may look similar to many parts of the developing world, or parts of Paris for that matter, and would be of equal value for students to experience. However, we certainly also want to refrain from evaluating these locales as places that need “our help” because they are “disadvantaged,” implying that because they do not have access to some of the things many University students have grown up with, they are viewed as the “most impoverished.” Many students learn experientially through studying abroad that this rhetoric implies a colonialist, hegemonic-superpower mindset, reinforcing an entirely unhealthy and inaccurate “us vs. them” approach to others, the root of many conflicts both locally and around the world. For example, “our” universities are better than “theirs,” because “we” know how to teach statistics, while “they” live in Sierra Leone. This comprises part of developing the intercultural competency needed to be respected by future coworkers, bosses and CEOs. The use of such rhetoric is far from ideal; we would wholeheartedly encourage a more careful argument in future endeavors.

Overall, while it may have not intended harm, we, along with many members of our campus community, unfortunately found the tone of the column belittling. If one is wondering what exactly students were using their language skills for — with full assurance, not simply to ask directions to the bathroom — one can email the thousands of students on our Contact Returnee page on our website.

If a student wants to study Spanish in Barcelona, their experiences will certainly go beyond ordering tea; we would certainly be hard-pressed to find students who spent a semester in Barcelona on our Spanish Italian and Portuguese (SIP) Program with no level of fluency in their speech or writing in Spanish when they return. We would encourage Weber to talk to these students, perhaps even in Spanish, about their program. In agreement with what our office asserts, they will tell him that study abroad, like college, is what you make of it. At the University, a student wishing to spend every night at KAM’S may have an entirely different experience than one who chooses to invest time in a community service-focused registered student organization. Likewise, we believe everyone’s experience is different, both here and abroad, and therefore it is hard to generalize one experience as being equal to everyone’s.

Moving forward, we would fully support Weber in choosing to redo the column. This time, however, we would encourage him to do proper research first, including speaking with us, our students, our professors and even the administrators on campus who do not support our cause. These are real and reflective voices out there and on this campus, which will give needed weight to any opinion piece.

_Bridget M. Doyle,_

_Study Abroad Office Outreach Coordinator_