The world-expanding virtues of study abroad

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As President of Goucher College in Maryland, Sanford Ungar spearheaded internationalization initiatives that included requiring every undergraduate to enroll in a study abroad program. The school backed up those efforts with travel stipends to make such participation more affordable. In the current issue of Foreign Affairs, Ungar offers a thoughtful essay positing that a major expansion of study abroad enrollments will help to create a more informed and worldly American citizenry:

In the Internet age, the world feels far smaller than it used to. But many Americans still know little about the rest of the world and may be more detached from it than ever.

. . . One symptom of Americans’ new isolation is a sharp contrast between the positive, even zealous views they hold of the United States and its role in the world and the anti-Americanism and negative perceptions of U.S. foreign policy that flourish almost everywhere else. This gap persists in part because relatively few Americans look beyond, or step outside, their own borders for a reality check.

. . . Luckily, there exists a disarmingly simple way to help address this problem and to produce future generations of Americans who will know more and care more about the rest of the world: massively increase the number of U.S. college and university students who go abroad for some part of their education and bring home essential knowledge and new perspectives.

Of course this is music to my ears. As I have written several times on this blog (most recently here), my own undergraduate semester abroad in England was transformative. I cannot imagine my life today without that experience as part of it.

Study abroad is not the only way to see the world and become a more globally informed individual. Military and volunteer service, jobs with international travel components (e.g., working for an airline), and extended trips abroad can all be world expanding experiences.

On this note I turn to travel writer, educator, and entrepreneur Rick Steves, who long has touted European travel on a middle-range budget and strongly believes in the transformative power of international travel. Here’s a snippet from his statement describing his global travel philosophy:

Globetrotting destroys ethnocentricity. It helps you understand and appreciate different cultures. Travel changes people. It broadens perspectives and teaches new ways to measure quality of life. Many travelers toss aside their hometown blinders. Their prized souvenirs are the strands of different cultures they decide to knit into their own character.

“Travel changes people.” Indeed.

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