The Endangered Asian Century
America, China, and the Perils of Confrontation
In “The Study-Abroad Solution” (March/April 2016), Sanford Ungar argues that a lack of overseas education among American college and university students “hinders the creation and implementation of a rational, consistent, and nuanced foreign policy that reflects American values.” Ungar contends that only a major commitment of government and private-sector resources to “a dramatic long-term expansion” of study abroad will allow the United States to begin building “a more healthy relationship with the rest of the planet.”
Ungar’s belief in the value of knowing and understanding others better is undeniably sincere, and in 20-plus years as a U.S. diplomat, I learned that international understanding is always in short supply. But the specific benefits of study abroad that Ungar mentions—higher four-year graduation rates for study-abroad participants and increased earning potential—do not seem terribly relevant to improving U.S. foreign policy. What is more, Ungar treats study abroad as unquestionably beneficial for all and, like many of its advocates, argues anecdotally, referring to the stories of students who returned from study abroad “with new ideas, stronger personalities, and a better sense of who they were,” after “transformative adventures that allowed them to see their own country . . . more clearly” and having observed things abroad “that the United States might be able to learn from.” Alas, having taught in two study-abroad programs in Europe between 2007 and 2010, I could provide anecdotes that would paint a very different picture of study abroad’s outcomes.
But it’s not necessary to rely solely on competing impressions. In recent years, researchers—including some affiliated with the Forum on Education Abroad, which is recognized by the U.S. government as a standard-setting body, and some at IES Abroad, a major study-abroad provider—have applied sophisticated research tools to analyze the effect of overseas education. Their findings paint a complex and contradictory picture. Participants in study abroad do not necessarily come back changed in the expected or desired ways, and the changes that do occur are mostly incremental. It does not appear that study abroad’s benefits reliably accrue to all participants, nor are they equally distributed. My own research on study abroad’s impact suggests that, on average, participants shift toward a more intercultural (as opposed to monocultural) worldview compared with students who remain on their home campuses in the United States. However, the effect is relatively minor. Perhaps more significant, I have found that three student characteristics are closely linked to the development of a more intercultural outlook while studying abroad: being female, identifying as a member of more than one national culture, and having a grandparent who was born and raised outside the United States. On the other hand, according to my research, the characteristics of the study-abroad programs in which students participate do not seem to influence the outcomes. In other words, it appears that changes in the ways that study-abroad participants understand and address cultural differences are more a function of their preexisting personal characteristics than of their experiences abroad.
These findings pose a challenge for efforts to make study abroad reliably beneficial for all participants and call into question whether it should be mandated for all undergraduates, even if it were possible to do so. Given the expense of study abroad for participants and their families, it is worth exploring more cost-effective approaches to fostering students’ intercultural skills, methods that would be more readily accessible to students outside the group of elite and aspiring elite institutions that contribute a disproportionate share of U.S. study-abroad participants. A recent, large-scale study by education researchers at Augustana College and the University of Iowa suggests that on-campus experiences with diversity may be the single most important factor in determining whether students increase their intercultural competence during their undergraduate years. It would be relatively inexpensive to maximize such experiences, drawing on resources already present at colleges and universities and in their surrounding communities.
It’s true that employers like to see study-abroad experiences on students’ resumés, and colleges and universities would no doubt welcome additional public and private subsidies to bolster their students’ career prospects. But massive, state-engineered subsidies for study abroad would mostly benefit the private good, and Ungar presents no clear evidence for his assertion that expanding study abroad would contribute to the public good by somehow leading to better U.S. foreign policies. Ungar presents an appealing picture of young Americans going abroad as cultural ambassadors, showing a sensitive understanding of what others see as wrong in U.S. society and policies, and returning energized to change the United States for the better. But he seems to be looking at study abroad through rose-colored glasses. The United States’ objective weight on the international stage inevitably generates criticism and antagonism, even apart from anger at specific U.S. policies. In my experience, when American students abroad interact with their foreign counterparts, they spend much of the time distinguishing their views from those of the U.S. government and from those of other Americans. Perhaps some come back with a positive drive to change U.S. policies, in one direction or another. But many others come back weary of such conversations, saying, “I’m glad that’s over with.”
I favor more modest objectives for study abroad. It would be a major achievement if study-abroad programs could reliably provide participating students with enriching experiences that demonstrably improved their intercultural skills. Such programs are not there yet, by any means.
Eric Terzuolo provides an interesting perspective on his and others’ research into the effect of overseas education and on his own disappointing experience teaching in study-abroad programs in Europe. It is true, of course, that “participants in study abroad do not necessarily come back changed in the expected or desired ways,” as he writes, just as not all college or university students, enrolled in every manner of institution, get as much out of their overall education as they might hope. But unlike Terzuolo, I’ve never met a student who was glad the experience was over.
I don’t argue that study abroad should be mandated for all undergraduates everywhere, even though we found that doing so at Goucher College, where I served as president, had a profound and demonstrably positive effect. What I propose is that within a decade, at least a third of all American undergraduates should have access to an affordable study-abroad program, with a goal of universal access (but not necessarily required participation) by midcentury. And surely, any increase would be an improvement over the current, frankly pathetic study-abroad participation rate of 1.5 percent of U.S. college and university students.
Terzuolo’s direct personal experience is apparently limited to study-abroad programs in Europe, some of which may well be in need of improvement, including greater academic rigor and less clustering of students from a single institution. He might feel differently if he were to visit some of the Goucher programs I did in Cuba, Honduras, and India, or if he were to talk with students who spent an intense semester in Brazil, China, Rwanda, or South Africa. He also misses a broader point: if Americans are to understand and cope more satisfactorily with events around the globe, they will have to see with their own eyes and absorb with their own minds the challenges their country faces. Several generations have already experienced the dangers of allowing foreign policy to be designed only by experts and carried out primarily by official representatives, many of whom have had limited exposure to the rest of the world.