Make semester abroad more meaningful

August 30, 2006|By Luther S. Luedtke

NEWTON, Mass. -- As classes begin today at Goucher College, the Towson institution becomes the first college in the nation to require all incoming students to study abroad during their college careers. This pioneering step, reflecting a growing need to cultivate globally literate and internationally experienced young people, is to be applauded and encouraged.

The proposal, however, could be even more ambitious.

What if, in addition to touring museums and learning new languages, students did as Jan Eliasson, president of the U.N. General Assembly and foreign minister of Sweden, has suggested? He would like all American college students to spend a semester abroad not simply studying but conducting grass-roots service - staffing schools and clinics, improving water sanitation, developing environmentally sound agriculture and helping start local business ventures in the world's struggling nations.

American college students are ready. The number of students ages 16 to 24 who volunteer more than 100 hours a year has risen nearly 18 percent since 2002, according to the Points of Light Foundation. Community service centers are burgeoning at U.S. colleges and universities. The tremendous student response to domestic development programs such as Teach for America and AmeriCorps shows the untapped reservoir of passion and idealism in our college students and their seemingly unlimited capacity for challenging work. If such programs could be embedded into college curricula rather than saved for graduation - when students are struggling with career choices and college debt - their effect could be even greater.

Students are eager to explore their world. According to the Institute of International Education, from 1993 to 2003, the number of American college students studying overseas increased 151 percent, with 175,000 students, mostly undergraduates, earning academic credit abroad in 2002 and 2003. Colleges increasingly boast about the percentage of their students who study overseas - some as high as 60 percent.

Still, although half of all college-bound students say they would like to study abroad, only 1 percent of undergraduates eventually do so, and almost half of these choose the European favorites: Britain, France, Italy and Spain. According to Foreign Policy, in 2004, Italy alone attracted more American students than did Africa, Asia and the Middle East combined. We need to couple the cosmopolitan allure of study abroad with the grittier, practical needs of today's global economy.

A study-and-development program for college students would marry the public diplomacy of the Fulbright Program with the humanitarianism of the Peace Corps. Not coincidentally, the Fulbright Program and the Peace Corps are celebrating their 60th and 45th anniversaries, respectively, in 2006. Both share the conviction that person-to-person friendships and understanding, across political and cultural borders, are the surest safeguards of peace and economic stability.

Real foreign experience is one of the most liberating and enduring gifts we can offer college students. The impact on students' understanding, tolerance, career choices and citizenship is profound. After volunteering at an orphanage in Haiti, Ophelia Dahl, daughter of author Roald Dahl and actress Patricia Neal, continued to work in population-based health surveillance and today heads Partners in Health, with more than 4,000 associates worldwide. Stories like hers abound.

Our colleges and universities can readily collaborate with the many development organizations that are imbedded in countries around the world. With support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), for example, Education Development Center is collaborating with City Year, a U.S.-based youth service organization, to engage inner-city youths in Johannesburg, South Africa, in leadership education, civic participation and work force development.

Other USAID-funded projects are transforming hundreds of thousands of schools and millions of students throughout Africa and Asia. Such programs are ripe for the involvement of American college students. The education, health and civic and economic stability of developing nations have become a priority for private and nonprofit corporations as well as government agencies.

Creation of study-and-development programs is an idea for educators, policymakers and business leaders to consider as we strive to create globally aware citizens equipped to live and work in the 21st century.

Luther S. Luedtke left the presidency of California Lutheran University in April to become president and CEO of Education Development Center Inc., based in Newton, Mass. His e-mail is lluedtke@edc.org.

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