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Why Students Should Still Study Abroad

Since the academic year started, both beheadings from militant groups and the coverage of Ebola have gone viral. Concerned parents want to know if their son or daughter will get a disease or if life outside the United States is safe. Judging solely by the cable news outlets, one would remain almost paranoid as one crisis after another seems to get around-the-clock coverage.

Yet, nearly 300,000 U.S. students will study abroad in a given year and that is still a good thing. And yes, students should still consider study abroad and there are many reasons, but let me briefly explore three of them.

First, we live in an interconnected, economically interdependent, and increasingly globalized world. When something negative happens to the economy in Asia, Europeans and those in the Americas respond. Students preparing for such a world must embrace international opportunities as not simply a chance to see the world, but as a chance to prepare to engage the world. Global citizenship is not a catch-phrase, it’s the growing responsibility of a generation of young people who can connect with one another faster than any other generation in human history. And these connections can rally people to political action as well as create friendships and conversations across international borders. These connections can make the world a better place and cross-cultural understanding through vivid and academically relevant experiences provide a mentored and matchless environment from which to explore other nations, languages, and people.

Secondly, the role of the University is to engage and to educate. Cable news coverage in recent months promotes more fear than perspective and currently spends more air time on opinions than factual reporting. Students who study abroad get to go beyond headlines, serving as unofficial diplomats to nations and to other Universities abroad, engaging their peers from other countries on some of the most pressing issues of our day. Joint research among undergraduates leads to lifelong friendships and service learning opportunities lead to life-changing perspective. What happens to the cross-cultural dialogue if it’s only done from a distance? What happens if our students don’t travel to other nations as part of their education? I wonder if we’d forfeit a bit of credibility if we simply said that the internet is enough connectivity, let’s just stay home and observe things from afar.

Finally, the shift from Western dominance to the increasing economic relevance of the Global South and the vitality and growth of the East is leading us in to an era where the United States is increasingly both an influencer and a listener; as much a learner as a leader. And future leaders should sit across from peers in other nations and listen to what they have to say. For example, shouldn’t the poor in other nations be able to have a say in the development of their own communities? Shouldn’t students ask questions before tweeting their answers?

With the rise of the internet, people feel that true exploration of another culture may be only a click away. But, deep down, we know better and deep down, we know that we’re educating young people who desire authenticity and connection from not just their leaders, but their own life. Yes, everyone wants students to be safe, but if we want them to be impactful leaders, then students should still study abroad. In fact, you and I rely on future leaders having real world experience and a global perspective. And this is learned as well as lived. And this is best learned through a University intentionally inviting students to consider working, living, and studying across borders. Expanding the mind should also enlarge the heart and this is hard to do from a distance. It’s hard to love and lead people well without being willing to at least move closer.

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As a University director of study abroad in Central Texas, ideas and stories matter. These reflections are for pilgrims making progress.