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Studying Abroad: Golden Opportunity or ‘Glorified Vacation’?

Studying Abroad: Golden Opportunity or ‘Glorified Vacation’?
Posted By: Elynor Moss on July 11, 2013

By LaShonda Cooks

Life is the ultimate Olympiad. College commencement is simply the opening ceremony. But after caps and gowns are disrobed, degrees are distributed and the day’s pomp and circumstance has come to a close, the real games begin.

Today’s graduates may not have pressure of competing before a panel of stern judges or a stadium full of gawking fans, but they will contend for jobs, careers, and advancement against the best and brightest of their fields across the globe. Studying abroad can offer a leg up on the competition. A 2010 NAFSA survey of 1,000 Americans found that 57 percent polled believed that in order to thrive in the global workplace, more students need the opportunity to participate in a study abroad program while in college.

“With company’s business strategies becoming more global and less U.S.-centric, it is imperative -- to be an executive in the future -- for you to have a study abroad experience,” Dallas-based Human Resources Consultant Marvin Jones echoed.

A 2009 Institute for International Education survey found that 30 percent of 206 CEOs surveyed had studied abroad. But few American students do. Only 270,000 of the estimated 12.2 million undergraduate students enrolled in four year colleges and universities studied abroad in the 2009/2010 school year. That’s less than 1 percent.

Less than 5 percent of those 270,000 students were African-American. The Open Doors Data by the Institute of International Education shows that while these numbers are on the rise, the fact remains that majority of students simply don’t study abroad during their academic programs.
The U.S. State Department sought to address this discrepancy with key countries through its “100,000 Strong” initiative. The initiative was launched in May 2010 by the State Department to increase the number and diversity of students studying abroad in China by making the voyage more affordable through scholarships and grants. In March 2011, it was expanded to include opportunities in Latin American and the Caribbean countries.

“Many young people are struggling just to afford a regular semester of school, let alone pay for the airline tickets and the living expenses to go halfway around the world. So we know that it’s not enough for us to simply encourage more people to study abroad. We also need to make sure that they can actually afford it,” First Lady Michelle Obama told Howard University in January 2011.

Financially-strapped students who qualify for Federal Pell Grants, the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program awards study abroad scholarships. The Chinese government has agreed to offer 10,000 “Bridge Scholarships” for American students to study abroad in its country. For member schools, IES offers abroad diversity scholarships specifically geared towards students attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

But for some HBCU students studying abroad could cost more than money.

“When I do a study abroad program, I would have to drop out,” a rising junior at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff stated. He is majoring in fishery and biology.

The school does not have an official study abroad program. This is not unusual amongst HBCUS. One 2008 survey conducted by the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education found that 53 black colleges sent a total of 844 students abroad in the 2003-2004 academic year and that only 1/4 of the schools surveyed had a full-time study-abroad coordinator. UAPB school officials noted that study abroad opportunities are based on the student’s major.

“It depends on the department,” Benita Corbin in the UPBA’s department of Continuing Education stated.

IIE’s Open Doors Data shows that 40 percent of American studying abroad hail from a social sciences or business management fields of study.

Douglas Scott, the Regional Director for INROADS South Central Region, suggested that students evaluate how a study abroad experience will fit into their career and academic goals. Across the nation, INROADS specializes in developing and placing talented underserved youth in business and industry, and preparing them for corporate and community leadership.

“Be careful. Is it really a just glorified vacation? Make sure it’s the right thing for you,” Scott advised.

A 2008 survey of 1,211 employers through the University of Minnesota found that study abroad was not highly valued by employers.

“Currently, very few employers specifically recruit candidates with an overseas study experience,” an IIE study entitled “The Demand for Overseas Experience” also found.

Their survey of 100 HR Directors revealed that employers most highly value interpersonal skills. When pressed, many HR Directors noted that students who study abroad are often more likely to have high interpersonal skills.

“The challenge really is to more effectively link and promote this connection,” the report stated.

For students who can effectively convert the experience into marketable skills and traits, studying abroad presents a golden opportunity.

“Studying abroad enables American students to obtain first-hand experience in other countries and cultures, to prepare them as 21st century professionals and leaders in all fields. The international skills they gain are crucial to their ability to succeed in global careers and work together across borders to address important world issues. It is important that we as educators work to try to ensure that all students have the opportunity to study abroad," Allan E. Goodman, President and CEO of the Institute of International Education stated in a press release.

But as Scott noted, studying abroad is not a one-size-fits-all fit. Students must be able to articulate how the opportunity will give them an competitive edge in their career and academic goals.
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