An Ethical Perspective on Study Abroad

I’m pleased to share this Guest Post by my colleague,  Scott G. Blair, Ph.D. Transnational Learning Consulting, LLC

If I were asked to write a message to undergraduate students recently returned home from a study abroad program on the topic of how they might think—in ethical terms—about their time spent overseas, I would write this:

 As you return from study abroad, and whatever the type of program, I encourage you to think about what you experienced overseas not as an event but as part of a process- one that needs to extend across your entire life. If you think of study abroad only as an event, its utility is largely limited to what you got out of it yourself: personal learning and development; knowledge and skills valuable to career empowerment; deeper awareness of personal identity; new friends and contacts; travel and cultural discovery; lots of fun and exhilaration; and probably grades and credits. These are worthy outcomes I would not question, however, what I would question—and ask you to reflect upon—is whether these outcomes are sufficient in today’s troubled world?

Because if you were sensitive and perceptive while pursuing your personal and professional goals while abroad, you probably noticed the striking examples of injustice that plague both the societies you encountered and our larger global order: poverty, illiteracy, racism, gender discrimination, caste systems, unequal power distributions, trampled-upon human rights, environmental degradation, violence and human desperation, to mention but a few.

Alternatively, if you think of education abroad as part of a larger process of continually and intentionally discovering and experiencing our imperfect world—i.e., learning to ask what is really going on here; as a process of thinking about what human attitudes and values created such injustices—i.e., learning to ask why things are the way they are; as a process of seeking to identify and understand structures of power and privilege—i.e., learning to ask who benefits most from the status quo; and as a process of finding personal and collective ways to start challenging and changing the global “order” encountered—i.e., learning to ask what it would take to change the status quo—then your experience abroad begins to serve a purpose higher than your own personal development and empowerment.[i]

This purpose—the key outcome for education abroad in my opinion—is the development of an informed and critical method for identifying and effecting necessary social and political change. The path to this outcome is a process-driven approach to situating, contextualizing and actualizing your time studying abroad, one that combines your recent concrete experience, your ongoing reflective observations, your efforts in abstract conceptualization, and your civic-minded experimentation with the reality of power.[ii] When successfully applied, this approach results in a cycle of learning and awareness critical to effecting positive change, both within you and then, through you, to the world around you.[iii]

In short, and in the words of Jeremy Geller, study abroad as event largely equals, at best, commodification; at worst, extraction.[iv] But study abroad as process holds out a promise of social, political, ethical and environmental transformation. The former outlook—a case of not being part of the solution— contributes to the many injustices our species blithely creates and tolerates. The latter outlook offers hope that we actually care about redressing them.


[i] Garry Hesser. Teaching & Learning Experientially. Half-day workshop delivered at the Experiential Education Academy (EEA) during the 42nd Annual Conference of the National Society for Experiential Education, St. Pete Beach, FL, September 30, 2013. Drawing from the work of Linda Finlay (retired) of Ithaca College, Hesser refers to this four-stage interrogative process as the “DIE Model” of learning in which students Decipher, Interpret, and Evaluate.

[ii] David A. Kolb. Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development, 1983.

[iii] Richard Slimbach. Becoming World Wise: A Guide to Global Learning, Stylus, 2010, passim.

[iv] Jeremy R. Geller. The Participant Observer in Study Abroad: Training the Eye. 2013. Geller has articulated the consumerist and instrumental impulse behind much of education abroad in previous writings. See Jeremy R. Geller, “New Paradigms in Study Abroad”, in The Illinois International Review, May 2007. Online access to both articles is located here.

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