Study Abroad for All?

Although last month’s news was dominated by the administration’s actions that depressed prospects for increased international educational exchange, on March 1, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) released its much-anticipated report “America’s Languages: Investing in Language Education for the 21st Century” (see March 2017, p. 9), which recommended that Congress increase federal funding for Americans to study abroad.
The report calls for “a national strategy to broaden access to language education for every student in the U.S., as preparation for life and work in a global 21st century must also promote opportunities for students to travel, experience other cultures, and immerse themselves in languages as they are used in everyday interactions and across all segments of society.”

In its previous “Heart of the Matter” report on the humanities and social sciences, the AAAS recommended that “transnational studies, study abroad, and international exchange programs should be expanded as part of undergraduate education.” Now, it is recommending that “the Department of Education should consider restructuring federal financial aid to help low-income undergraduates enjoy study abroad during the summer, as well as the academic year, to obtain language competence in their specific area of study.” The report recognizes that most study abroad programs “can be expensive—in real dollars, in forfeited income during the period abroad, and in time spent away from home campuses and coursework—and are therefore less accessible to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.” To overcome this, it suggests that colleges should recognize “overseas coursework for either elective or major credit. This recognition would enable students to apply financial aid and student loans to their time abroad, just as they apply it to their home campus studies,” in addition to extending financial aid to cover summer study programs.

Additionally, the report calls for the Departments of State and Defense to expand their successful immersion models. Cited are the examples of the Language Flagship model of the National Security Education Program (NSEP-DoD), which prepares students to speak, read, and listen in a non-English language at a professional level through intensive training at home and during an overseas capstone year, and the State Department’s National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) and Critical Language Scholarship programs, which support over 1,000 students of critical languages in overseas language study annually.

Not mentioned by the report but surely a source of information for its authors is a 2013 evaluation by Research Solutions International, LLC investigating the Gilman Scholarships’ goals of helping prepare these students to assume significant roles in an increasingly global economy and interdependent world. The evaluation studied the medium- and longer-term outcomes for recipients of the scholarships between the years 2003 and 2010 and also considered the impacts of the scholarships on U.S. higher education institutions and on the families and communities of scholarship recipients.

The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) administers the congressionally mandated Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program, which offers over 2,800 scholarships of up to $5,000 per academic year for U.S.-citizen undergraduates of limited financial means to study or intern abroad. Award amounts will vary depending on the length of study and student need, but applicants who are studying a critical-need language while abroad in a country in which the language is predominantly spoken will automatically be considered for the Critical Need Language Award, for a total award of $8,000. During the 2015–2016 academic year, 70 Critical Need Language Awards were offered.

According to the evaluation, representation of minorities among Gilman Scholarship recipients well exceeds that of the U.S. study abroad population as a whole. Participation in the program from African American, Latino, and Asian communities is two to three times greater than their participation in U.S. study abroad overall. Just under half of Gilman Scholars in the cohort examined were part of the first generation in their families to enroll in higher education.

The data shows that the Gilman Scholarship is diversifying the kinds of students who study and intern abroad and the countries and regions where they go by offering awards to U.S. undergraduates who might otherwise not participate due to financial constraints. From changed perspectives on the world and new interests in working on global issues to focusing academic pursuits on international topics and deepening foreign language skills, the program has enabled students of limited financial means to develop the knowledge and competencies required to compete in a global economy. See the accompanying table for a more in-depth analysis of the benefits of the program.

Significantly, in light of proposed budget cuts, last month’s AAAS report also recognizes that businesses should become involved in the effort to fund study abroad, as it is in their own interests: “American businesses may have the most to gain from a workforce that is competent in world languages and effective in international settings. Eighty-eight percent of the executives who responded to the 2014 Coalition for International Education–sponsored study reported that international sales will be an equal or greater percentage of their business in the future, and almost two-thirds report a need for international skills at entry and management levels. In other words, the U.S. is rapidly approaching a significant skills gap. Many businesses recognize and address this need by providing language education for their employees through a variety of means, including internal training programs and sponsored coursework. Community colleges have also become important partners by providing effective and affordable language instruction for adults.

In addition, through sponsored internships, the private sector and many NGOs have discovered ways to develop a multilingual workforce that can meet their future needs. Some work through programs like Northeastern University’s Global Co-op, which connects students with professional internships abroad, thereby offering language and cultural training as well as valuable work experience. Even a quick online search reveals dozens of such opportunities for students interested in exploring professional experiences abroad, including programs with Deloitte, Goldman-Sachs, and the World Bank, as well as U.S. embassies, world governments, and a host of other large and small corporate and nonprofit entities. Clearly, it is in the best interests of these organizations, and of U.S business more generally, to recruit and train more talented young people for success in a global economy—and international internships should be a part of any global strategy.”

Some programs are already leveraging commercial funding to boost study abroad. ExxonMobil, Banco Santander, and Coca-Cola are among the investors in 100,000 Strong in the Americas, the signature education initiative in the Western Hemisphere, the goal of which is to increase the number of U.S. students studying in the Western Hemisphere to 100,000 and the number of Western Hemisphere students studying in the U.S. to 100,000 by 2020.

To implement the 100,000 Strong in the Americas Initiative, the Innovation Fund was established as a public-private partnership between the U.S. Department of State, Partners of the Americas, and NAFSA: Association of International Educators. The Innovation Fund awards promote transnational institutional partnerships by leveraging private-sector contributions and commitments by higher education institutions to increase unique study abroad opportunities for students going to and from the Western Hemisphere region.
Similarly, the 100,000 Strong Foundation launched in 2013 to help answer President Obama’s call to deepen Americans’ understanding of China through study abroad, is a public-private partnership to encourage study abroad.

It is the 100,000 Strong Foundation’s mission to promote the expansion and diversification of Americans studying Mandarin and studying abroad in China. The goal is to bridge the gap between cultures, strengthen the bilateral economic and strategic relationship, and enhance global stability.