I remember my father telling of his frustration and powerlessness during a meeting of top American officers in Saigon in the 1960s. They discussed strategies that made no sense, they exhibited a complete ignorance of Vietnam and the Vietnamese people, they discounted advice from their fellow officers who had seen combat in this foreign land.
My father was in no position to disabuse this group of their tactics. He was just an advisor to the political warfare section of the South Vietnamese army, whose experience in Vietnam dated back to 1952 and included time at Dien Bien Phu, the battle where the French lost their colonial hold on the country. Furthermore, these officers were Ivy League and West Point graduates, while my father had studied at an art academy in Paris on the GI Bill after landing on Utah Beach on June 6, 1944. He had no place in this circle.
Today I find this story underlines the importance to me of education abroad for all U.S. college students. In the past decade, study abroad professionals on campuses across the country have been making headway, changing set attitudes among faculty and administrations, and encouraging students to consider a stint in a foreign country. Despite concerted efforts, however, the number of U.S. college students who study abroad remains very low and represents less than 1% of the total number of American undergraduates. When a student does choose a term abroad, it is usually for a summer term only, eight weeks, while semester-long programs are less favored.
At Yale, there is the ultimate commitment to education abroad in the Richard U. Light Fellowship that allows students to study intensive language in China, Japan or Korea multiple times over the course of their undergraduate years. The scholarship covers all expenses. According to the Director of the Light Fellowship Program, Kelly McLaughlin, “Since its inception, the fellowship has awarded $13 million dollars to 900 Yale students (including undergraduate, graduate and professional) for fully funded language study.”
Other universities, like Lewis & Clark, Kalamazoo, St. Olaf, report that over 80% of their undergraduates study abroad. Schools that proudly number among the top in the number of students studying abroad include University of Minnesota (75% of their undergrad population), Middlebury (63%), and American University (60%). (Source: Open Doors; IIEnetwork.org<http://IIEnetwork.org>; 2009 Data Tables)
There is increasing support for the notion of making a study abroad term part of an American undergraduate education. Currently, there is a bill pending called the Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Foundation Act. NAFSA, the primary association for education abroad professionals, describes the bill’s goals as follows:
- Increasing participation in quality study abroad programs.
- Encouraging diversity in student participation in study abroad.
- Diversifying locations of study abroad, particularly in developing countries.
- Making study abroad a cornerstone of today’s higher education.
In short, the bill aims to develop a more globally informed American citizenry. For now, its progress has been slow, though the Senate Appropriations Committee did set aside initial funding of $2 million in August this year to start a program following the same model as the Simon Bill. With so many other urgent legislative items, I fear this priority will continue to languish.
Inspired by the spirit of the Simon Bill, several of my colleagues at CET Academic Programs and Academic Travel Abroad and myself established a 501c3 non-profit organization this year called the Fund for Education Abroad (www.fundforeducationabroad.org). Our mission is to eliminate financial barriers to study abroad through scholarships for deserving students, particularly those in under-represented groups like minorities, non-liberal arts majors and community college students.
We are holding our first benefit here in Washington DC on Tuesday, November 9, at George Washington University.
We are screening a documentary, Crossing Borders, about four American college students who spend time living with Moroccan families and exploring their respective views of Islam, the West, and more. We invite any and all supporters of education abroad to join us. You may purchase tickets by clicking on the following link: <http://www.fundforeducationabroad.com/support-fea/upcoming-events/> http://www.fundforeducationabroad.com/support-fea/upcoming-events/. (Students can attend for free.)
In this intimately connected world, can we really afford to delay in making a term abroad part of every college-educated American’s experience? How different would the world be if our leaders had each spent time studying abroad, learning a foreign language, adapting to different mores, overcoming barriers of understanding, dispelling American stereotypes, and generally appreciating differences and finding commonality in the human experience?
Imagine if, way back in 1965, those military officers had studied abroad in Asia, learned the language, developed a finer understanding of Asian history, culture and guerilla warfare and analyzed the intelligence with deeper insight. It’s hard to speculate on how history may have changed course, but one can only hope that the conversations would have been better informed and the results less disastrous.