The significance of study abroad experiences in shaping a generation of global diplomats and improving international relations was highlighted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a message aired during the Open Doors 2012 briefing on international educational exchange in Washington D.C. “The ties of friendship and understanding you're building are the most effective forms of diplomacy,” Clinton told international educators. “They truly will help shape our common future.”
Despite the value of study abroad, only about 14 percent of students receiving a Bachelor’s degree will study abroad during their undergraduate years, and only one percent of all students enrolled in U.S. higher education are studying abroad in any given academic year.
Recent data on study abroad both provide some hope and demonstrate room for growth. A record number of U.S. students are studying abroad, according to the most recent statistics in the Open Doors 2012 report published by the Institute of International Education in partnership with the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Nearly 274,000 Americans received credit for courses and research abroad in the 2010-2011 academic year. Furthermore, data show that an increasing number of U.S. students are choosing non-traditional destinations like China, India, and Brazil. Still, the new study abroad totals mark a modest one percent increase from the previous year. Much more needs to be done to increase the number of students who participate.
The good news is that there are a number of resources available to support the development of our future leaders through funding for study abroad experiences. For instance, Boren Scholarships and Fellowships provide funding for U.S. undergraduate and graduate students to spend significant time overseas studying less commonly taught languages in parts of the world that most Americans do not visit, including Africa, Asia, Central and Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East. University of Oklahoma President David L. Boren, who as a U.S. Senator was the principal author of the legislation that created the Boren Awards, declared that “Never in our history has it been more important for America's future leaders to have a deep understanding of the rest of the world. As we seek to lead through partnerships, respect for and understanding of other cultures and languages is absolutely essential.”
The awards, which are sponsored by the National Security Education Program and administered by IIE, were created with the goal of enhancing the federal government’s ability to deal effectively with the challenging global issues of the 21st century. Therefore, in exchange for funding, Boren Awards recipients commit to working in a national security position in the federal government for at least one year after graduation. Boren Awards alumni have risen to leadership roles in the federal government as a result of the knowledge and expertise in specific world regions they gained while overseas. Additionally, NSEP’s The Language Flagship prepares students to graduate with the professional level language proficiency needed to lead in the business and government communities by combining intensive language study with an academic year internship and study experience overseas.
The Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and administered by IIE, broadens the student population that studies abroad by providing scholarships to undergraduates who might not otherwise participate due to financial constraints. The Gilman Program awards over 2,300 scholarships annually, preparing U.S. students from diverse backgrounds, institutions and fields to assume significant roles in an increasingly interdependent world. This crucial support has enabled over 11,000 young and very diverse Americans who receive Pell Grants but would never have the opportunity to leave the United States, to hone a second language, conduct research abroad, and prepare themselves for the global economy while serving as citizen ambassadors in their respective host countries. Upon return to the United States, Gilman Scholars fulfill a service project at their home campus or community to help expand the impact of their overseas experience.
The Fulbright Program, a flagship of America’s public-diplomacy efforts which is also sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, is another vital resource that enables U.S. citizens to study, teach, and conduct research in other countries, and brings citizens of other countries to the United States, with the goal of increasing mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries. The program has provided approximately 318,000 participants from over 155 countries —chosen for their academic merit and leadership potential — with the opportunity to observe one another’s political, economic and cultural institutions, exchange ideas, and embark on joint ventures of importance to the general welfare of the world's inhabitants. Many Fulbright Student Program grantees are early-career professionals who will go on to take leadership positions in their home countries. Fulbright U.S. Student alumni play prominent roles in an entire range of professions and include ambassadors, members of Congress, judges, heads of corporations, university presidents, journalists, artists, professors, and teachers. Some 44 have won Nobel prizes for ideas and research they started while studying abroad.
We encourage policymakers and funders from all sectors to join in these important efforts to make study abroad more accessible to students from all backgrounds. We also urge business leaders to show that they value the skills that are gained through international experience in their hiring and advancement policies.
In the belief that effectively solving global challenges requires the exchange of ideas and leaders with an international vision, the Institute remains deeply committed to promoting cross-cultural dialogue and experiences. We welcome the active participation of policy makers, educators, diplomats, and future leaders in the United States and abroad in this important endeavor. It may be the best investment any of us have in making the world a less dangerous place.
Dr. Allan E. Goodman is the President of the Institute of International Education. IIE administers the Fulbright program for the United States Department of State, as well as over 250 other corporate, government and privately-sponsored programs. Previously, Dr. Goodman was Executive Dean of the School of Foreign Service and Professor at Georgetown University. He has a Ph.D. in Government from Harvard, an M.P.A. from the John F. Kennedy School of Government and a B.S. from Northwestern University.
This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's January/February 2013 print edition.