Wednesday, February 25, 2009

How Much Do They Study, Abroad?

The last time I took students abroad, in 2007 to study the media in France and Italy, I was blessed with a generally well-behaved, earnest group of young people who took the academic goals of the travel course seriously. 

But while we visited Florence’s Accademia on a beautiful and warm May morning, one young woman from our group excused herself from the tour, took a seat on the curb outside, tucked her head between her knees and threw up.

She was (and still is) a good kid — always in class on campus, taking her studies and her relationships with faculty seriously. But she missed a once-in-her-lifetime to chance to see Michaelangelo’s David becaused she'd drank too much the night before. 

Students who put more emphasis on “abroad” than on “study” aren’t a new problem in the field. At last week’s Forum for Education Abroad conference in Portland, several faculty and providers offered advice on how to get students to take their learning more intentionally while abroad.

The challenge, according to Hillary Lieberman Link, dean for international programs at Barnard College, is that many students consider study abroad the same way that the Russian author Mikhail Bakhtin considered carnival: “While carnival lasts, there is no other life outside it.”

“I think of students who come back from study abroad, and they say it changed their life and they’ve become entirely new persons,” said Link. “But while they were abroad they were in their own world, completely separate in many ways from the academic life that they live on their home campus.”

Efforts to get students to take the “study” in study abroad as seriously as they should are hindered by institutional constraints that keep schools from dedicating as much time to study-abroad preparation as they'd like. And then there is the culture of U.S. undergraduate life, in which some — but certainly not all — students want to go abroad partly because they hope there won’t be much study involved at all.

Even for those students who don’t overdo drinking and other less-than-academic pursuits abroad, there are problems related to culture, education philosophies and more than can hinder learning abroad.

Stephen Ferst of the Education Abroad Network, which offers long-term programs in Asia, Australia and New Zealand, said his organization helps students go abroad with reasonable expectations of what they’ll encounter when taking courses at universities in other nations.

Ferst said the indicators of academic success in study abroad include the extent to which students take a deep approach to learning and whether they’ll make use of peer support groups among American and host-nation resources. Another factor is the level of diligence students apply to meeting task requirements at host universities.

Also, academic success abroad depends on whether students have realistic expectations of how learning and instruction happen outside the United States, which puts a heavy emphasis on student satisfaction with the educational process. In many other nations, the focus is less on student learning and more on faculty research productivity.

Lilli Engle, president of the American University Center of Provence, said that her organization takes students who have had at least four semesters of French before wanting to study in France. Still, the American students show tendencies to not immerse in the culture and to view French culture through an American lens.

“Despite all the work we do, they seem to be less and less prepared for the kind of cultural engagement that they’re going to have,” she said.

To compensate, Engle says her group has American students take an ongoing orientation course throughout the abroad experience that helps bridge the differences between U.S. learning and European teaching styles, as well as linking students with cultural resources to ease their transition into French life.

The AUCP program has helped students make a better transition and improve their learning. And that’s helped along by what Engle calls her students’ “romantic” nature.

“They can seem themselves as part of an adventure,” she said. “They are inspirable, meaning that they can set standards high and they will rise to the occasion.”

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