study abroad

July 17, 2013

I wrote a column for my local paper about the benefits and the obstacles of participating in a student exchange program or study abroad. Study abroad does offer opportunity for travel and cultural enrichment, and it broadens global and self perspective. It also tests a student’s maturity, tenacity, and resilience—all traits that enhance success in college and beyond. I am a big proponent of study abroad, but caution is needed. A student may be gung-ho over the idea, but the reality of living in a foreign country with different cultural cues, expectations, and environment can derail the experience. It also can be derailed by a student unwilling to adapt to whatever situation is presented to them.

 In 2011, Allison Hodgkins, Resident Director of the CIEE Study Center in Amman, Jordan (CIEE is a non-profit, non-governmental international student exchange organization), wrote a guest post for me about the frustrations she faces with students who come with the wrong attitude. I thought it was worth sharing again in its entirety.  

 From Allison Hodgkins:

 If I could sum up the biggest deficiency that I see with this generation of US undergraduates it would be, “a lack of independent strategies for handling adverse situations.” It never ceases to amaze me when a student who has laid out a detailed plan for using their study abroad experience as a spring-board to a high-level career in government service or international development uses the emergency phone line to ask me to address cockroaches in their bathroom (an extreme example, but true). What’s worse, is when a student’s encounters with the routine discomforts of life in a developing country results in a polite, but firm email or phone call from Mommy or Daddy directing me to address the problem and report back when their child’s comfort level is restored. Excuse me, but isn’t study abroad fundamentally about getting outside the comfort zone?

 Unfortunately, this generation of university students has been coached from a very early age to rely on the intervention of their parents and educators to clear obstacles from their path and to demand facilitation of their expected (or even required) level of success. Thus, when presented with a situation where such resources are unavailable all too many simply flounder.

 Although I see this in just about every aspect of my work with students, one of the most acute examples is with internships. We offer for-credit internships for students on our programs. The objective is to match them with organizations in Jordan working in the fields that students are the most interested in, such as human rights, economic development, community empowerment, etc. Students leap at this opportunity, but inevitably fail to grasp their role in maximizing it. First, during the application process they focus less on demonstrating what skills they could offer an organization and more on securing the type of organization that suits their aspirations. “I see myself working with refugees…” Ok, what skills do you have that could be used by this organization? “My passion is for refugees….” But when the actual work involves uploading information on refugees into a database, the devastated intern comes back to my office lamenting how they are not being “challenged” or having an opportunity “to use their skills with refugees.” They generally do not appreciate my blunt assessment that as a 21 year old, upper middle class American with four semesters of college-level Arabic and basic coursework in international relations, they really don’t have the skills or experience needed by refugees.

 A student this term exemplified this. She wanted to work with refugees or human rights and actually had some relevant, short term experience with Catholic Relief Services and some legal aid projects. We offered her an internship with Penal Reform International, a local branch working on advocacy for female and child prisoners in Jordan and the region. They really needed help with grant writing and research. Very small, grass roots—rubber meets the road. She balked—too much office work, not enough exposure to the “field.” So we got her another lead with international relief and development working with a community-based organization needing support with an educational enrichment program in a disadvantaged neighborhood. Her response: too much responsibility and more commitment than she felt she could take on. This opportunity would inhibit her ability to “experience the city and the region” while maintaining her academic performance at expected levels. Ultimately, she opted not to take an internship. She also declined to take part in my seminar on conflict resolution (also one of her declared interest areas) because it had a 35-page research paper—too much to expect for a “study abroad course.”

 Is she going to be in charge of our foreign aid programs one day?

 Truth is, it’s pretty darn easy for me to create a comfortable study abroad experience in Jordan. With 15 years hard time in the Middle East, I have learned how to make things happen. But by insulating them from the daily frustrations (you think the bureaucracies of college applications are hard? Try and liberate a 60-day visa extension from a Jordanian police station!), I am actually denying them the chance to build the skill set they need to be successful working abroad.

 Perhaps the most beneficial and universal learning opportunity for study abroad is the chance to deal with an unfamiliar, uncomfortable, frustrating environment for an extended period of time and learn you can survive. I know I am supposed to say “thrive” as it sounds more upbeat, but I don’t think that’s accurate. Survival is perhaps our most basic life skill and presumes that the going can be pretty tough sometimes. Shouldn’t we allow our children and students exposure to that reality?