Why should international education be an integral part of all undergraduate education?

The following text is from an address I delivered earlier this month (October, 2019) to a group of retired adults convening as part of the OSHER Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Oregon.

Why do families send their children to college?

What expectations do parents have regarding the outcome of their child obtaining a college degree?

…what was your expectation for going to college and what did you hope the degree would do for your career or job prospects?

I’m going to address the question, why international education should be an integral part of undergraduate education in the US?  To do so means we have to also acknowledge the changes in our economy, in our societal values, in our families, in the demographics of our nation, and in the diversity of our campus population.

At the turn of the last century, in the 1920s, the University Delaware started the first junior year abroad program; in 1948, Sweet Briar College took over the program.  It was only after WWII, in the 1940s, that the US began the Fulbright scholarship program.  There were a few nonprofit exchange programs that had begun earlier in the 3os, especially the Experiment in International Living which offered students, for the first time, family homestays in Europe.

The history of international education is that of a unique co-curricular program available primarily to privileged white and female students. Participation reflected the population of students on our campuses up until the 1960s. In fact, for much of the last century, most campuses did not have international education programs.

In the last 20 years, one of the drivers that has pushed campuses to rapidly open up international education opportunities is the globalization of the workforce in our nation and around the world. Along with technological innovations in communications, the type of experiences which students require to be competitive in the job market after graduation has transformed the approach of campuses to off-campus international experience.

We know that studying abroad, and international internships, in particular, have the potential – if properly structured- to contribute to a students’ employability after graduation… sooner and with higher salaries than for students without such experience.  We know the types of skills which employers [not only in business but in all occupations] value in hiring new talent —-and research has showed that many hiring managers are aware of the benefits of international education. And we also know there is a strong correlation, in many surveys and studies, between international education and employability.

However, here’s the problem:  in any given year, upwards of 20 million students are enrolled in over 4,000 colleges and universities  in our 50 states and territories.  But, less than 400,000 graduate with any type of international education experience!  The usual stat is that about 10% of undergrads who do graduate [and remember that only about 60% do so in 4 years] have such experience…

Students need to be disabused early upon their arrival freshman year, that they can glide through choosing courses, majors and selection of off-campus experiential learning – domestic or international- without considering how to build an effective action plan integrating all aspects of their classroom and off-campus learning experiences, to purposefully support their employability after graduation.

Participation in study abroad, an internship or a service-learning program abroad, in and of itself, is not sufficient –it’s the campus’ responsibility to provide students with the tools and preparatory work which helps them to make meaning of their experience and to place their experience in perspective with regards to their academic goals and career aspirations.

Merely addressing the question of increasing numbers going abroad, without insuring that there are adequate advising staff, well trained and with international experience themselves, will minimize the impact of a campus’ efforts to “internationalize” the campus curriculum .

I think the value-added, and contribution to the return on investment which families are concerned about, of international education is diminished if students cannot clearly articulate the way in which their international experience has strengthened specific intercultural competencies and soft skills of interest to prospective employers.

Globalization of the workforce, increased student mobility, rising demand by employers for “global-ready” graduates are but a few of the forces forcing change in the traditional structure of international education today. The momentum of these forces will continue to influence higher education policy and planning , in particular, the development of dynamic partnerships with businesses and industry to widen opportunities for students to obtain experiential learning and applied practical work experience for decades to come.

At a time when the nation is mired in political discord, when we are being pulled apart from each other on so many socio-economic & political issues – we need our campuses to support both domestic and international experiences which create opportunities for students to learn from each other, and from immersion in and exposure to unfamiliar communities in the US and abroad. This is why international education is more important now than ever for undergrads on all our campuses – 2 and 4 year, urban & rural, research & liberal arts.

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