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USA: Widening participation in and the scope of “study abroad”

By day, Hector Santiago uses his background in information technology to make the computers “better and faster” at the Shreyas Foundation School for orphaned children from the slums of Ahmedabad, the largest city in the state of Gujarat in India.

Clifton Ndubuisi was a Boren scholarship recipient and studied Arabic in Jordan. Photo: Clifton Ndubuisi

"Having an initial internship on your resume can boost it up to the top for recruiters that are looking for talent with real-life experience"

By night, he teaches karate to children at the school. He also seeks to raise funds for the school via social media.

Santiago does his work through a 10-week internship and study abroad experience funded by the Fund for Education Abroad — a Washington, DC-based organisation that is one of several working to diversify the small but growing population of US students who study abroad.

And he is one of the thousands of American students who seek practical experience — both for personal and professional development — while they go abroad.

“What we’ve seen — particularly through Open Doors but also generally — is many more students are now going abroad not just for an academic programme but also for internship programs,” says Daniel Obst, deputy vice president of international partnerships in higher education at the Institute of International Education, a New York City-based organisation that works, among other things, to provide scholarships for American students to study abroad.

“We find that one of the reasons is that students see that practical work experience really gives them a leg up in their job search,” he notes. “Having an initial internship on your resume can boost it up to the top for recruiters that are looking for talent with real-life experience and global skills that can impact their workforce.”

IIE is just beginning to track the number of students who go abroad for such experience. The organisation found that — in addition to the 304,467 US students who received academic credit for study abroad in the 2013-2014 school year, 22,181 US students participated in non-credit work, internships, and volunteering abroad. There is no comparison data for previous years.

“How do we prepare our students to meet the global economy while they complete their degree?”

As a native of Newark, New Jersey, Santiago, 27, says he never imagined leaving the place where he grew up — much less the United States — to help poor children on the other side of the world.

“It’s really one of those places where you never think you’re going to get out, so you never get out,” Santiago said of his hometown, which is known as “Brick City” and suffers from one of the highest murder rates in the nation. “That’s the kind of mindset it engenders,” he said.

Though the cost of studying abroad can put such experiences out of reach for many students, Santiago was one of the fortunate few — 36, to be precise — to be selected from among the 6,000 to 7,000 students that officials at the Fund for Education Abroad say apply for their $5,000 scholarships each year.

Increasingly, such scholarships and efforts are being made on behalf of students from groups that typically don’t go abroad.

The efforts include major campaigns, such as Generation Study Abroad, an effort headed by IIE that is meant to double the number of American students who study abroad by the year 2020, from 300,000 undergraduates per year, or less than 1 in 10 of all undergraduates, to 600,000

The Fund for Education Abroad enabled sisters to study abroad in Japan and is one of a number of scholarship sources helping widen participation

The Fund for Education Abroad enabled this study abroad experience in Japan

The extent to which such efforts will yield results remain to be seen. But trend data show that more students from ethnic groups in the US that typically don’t go overseas are beginning to go. IIE reports that the proportion of minority students who study abroad increased from 16% in the 2003-2004 school year to 26% a decade later.

While four-year institutions dominate study abroad, a substantial amount of two-year colleges — which focus more on training and education for specific jobs and careers as opposed to the liberal arts — are beginning to get in on the action.

That’s what administrators at Northshore Technical Community College, or NTTC, in Louisiana did when they learned that the Council on International Educational Exchange, or CIEE, was offering $20,000 grant to support an innovative faculty-led study abroad programme in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates.

The grant — meant for NTCC students who had never travelled abroad or lacked the financial resources to go abroad — benefited about a dozen students. They included students such as Ivana George, 20, and Anderson Russell, 22, who describe the two-week trip to UAE in January as “surreal” and “like a dream,” respectively. Both students — who each transferred from four-year institutions — also say they believe the experience will help them in their future careers.

“I think many have realised that some travel is better than no travel”

“How do we prepare our students to meet the global economy while they complete their degree?” says Daniel Roberts, provost and vice chancellor of academic affairs at NTCC. The answer: “Study abroad that focused on workforce development rather than the traditional academic and more lectured-based approach to study abroad.”

Maritheresa Frain, executive vice president for study abroad at CIEE, says that study abroad today faces challenges similar to those faced by higher education itself — it is becoming more focused on preparation for work.

“Because of a more globally competitive environment, highly specialised jobs, and the role of technology, when parents send their kids to school they think: What kind of skills are these students achieving at the university that will make them more competitive?” Frain remarks.

“The argument for study abroad is it allows an opportunity for students to experience themselves and others outside of their university campus. It’s adapting, dealing with ambiguity, learning to develop teamwork skills.”

And sometimes, it’s also about developing skills in a critical language. That’s what Clifton Ndubuisi had in mind when he trekked to Jordan on a Boren Scholarship to study Arabic for two semesters beginning back in August 2014.

Boren Scholarships, an initiative of the National Security Education Program, provide up to $20,000 for a full academic year for undergraduate students to study less commonly taught languages in world regions critical to US interests, and underrepresented in study abroad, such as Africa and the Middle East. Boren Scholars must commit to work in the federal government for at least one year after graduation.

Experiencing Jordan in person is nothing like seeing media reports of what happens in the country

It is rare for American students to spend as much time as Ndubuisi spent abroad. IIE reports that in 2013-2014 academic year, only three per cent of all US students who studied abroad did so on a long-term basis, that is, an academic or calendar year.

The vast majority — 62.1 per cent — only spent the summer or less than eight weeks abroad, despite some stakeholders questioning the benefit of short-term study abroad trips, where students from one university go abroad as a group and take one faculty-led course tucked in between semesters.

“These special sessions end up serving as more of a sightseeing experience than an immersive and defining experience that a semester-long program could offer,” ventures Mark Shay, CEO of Abroad101.

However, Troy Peden, founder of long-established resource,, points to a clear rise in the number of third party providers moving into provision of these faculty-led, university promoted short programmes.

“Ten years ago a handful of providers were in this business,” he says. “Today virtually every major third party provider is bidding on university faculty-led programmes. The growth in the number of these programs appears to be substantial.”

Peden adds, “I think shorter programmes at a lower cost with guaranteed credit from the student’s home university and the added benefit of a faculty marketing the offering have all added to the growth. “

A US study abroad student in China. Photo: IIE

A US study abroad student in China. Photo: IIE

Peden observes that year long study programmes however have been in decline for many of the same economic and commitment reasons. “Many professionals in the field once were ideologically opposed to short programs that offer limited cultural immersion, but I think many have realised that this is what the market demands and maybe have recognised that some travel is better than no travel.”

Back to Ndubuisi, whose trip abroad was rare in another sense — he is among the approximately two per cent of US students who study abroad in the Middle East and North Africa, according to IIE.

The vast majority of US students — 53 percent — go to Europe, followed by Latin America & the Caribbean (16.2 per cent) and Asia (11.9 per cent).

For Ndubuisi, spending the year in the Middle East paid off tremendously. “When I got to Jordan, I could not have a conversation with the cab driver at all,” Ndubuisi recalls. “When I left, I was doing research papers in Arabic, I was taking classes in Arabic.

“It was really beneficial and then on top of that, the culture experience,” he said, explaining that experiencing Jordan in person is nothing like seeing media reports of what happens in the country. “It’s more authentic,” he enthuses.

After returning from Jordan, Ndubuisi, a graduate of Georgia State University, got accepted into the Conflict Resolution Program at The Carter Center, where he worked on a project aimed at countering ISIS propaganda.

He said he was surprised at how much Arabic he had learned when he found himself following the Syrian civil war on social media and open source information and analysing videos that had been uploaded to Youtube.

“I was able to document the war in real time as a city is getting taken over. I could see it on Youtube and the Twitter accounts”

“I’d take the videos and I’d point out which groups are in the video, what weapons are used, what city they are in, who they are collaborating with, any details that I could come up with,” Ndubuisi relates. “With that information I was able to document the war in real time as a city is getting taken over. I could see it on Youtube and the Twitter accounts. I could see the actual shelling happening and the shooting.”

Ndubuisi finished up his work at The Carter Center in December. As a Boren scholar, he must work at least one year in the federal government. He is now leaning toward becoming a passport specialist until he can figure out his next step.

His advice to undergraduates on study abroad? “I’d tell them if they can do it, go for it because you have to find ways to make yourself unique in this job environment, and an undergraduate degree is almost nothing,” he says. “You need hard skills, so having some sort of proficiency in a critical language, like Arabic or Chinese, is a big game-changer.

“And it’s not just the Arabic skills. It’s the cultural expertise that you bring back because you cannot learn it in the classroom or through watching a movie or the TV.”


• This is an abridged version of an article which first appeared in The PIE Review, our quarterly magazine. You can subscribe and receive this mailed to your door! 

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