Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Internationalizing Nontraditional Learners

If those in higher education consider study abroad to be an element of growing importance — if not necessity — in the flat world, then why aren’t schools doing more to convince the 40 percent of students who aren’t between ages 18-24 to take part?

The conventional wisdom is that so-called “nontraditional” learners (nontraditional even though they soon will make up more than half of all college students) can’t or won’t take part. They have bills to pay, families to raise, jobs to go to. Their days of being able to take off for three weeks or three months to discover themselves and their world are in the past.

But don’t be too fast to give up on engaging those 25 and older in study abroad, argues David Shallenberger, a professor of international education at SIT Graduate Institute, which specializes in study abroad programs.

Writing in the latest edition of NAFSA’s International Educator, Shallenberger says adult learners can be the most receptive to the kinds of perspective-changing experiences that study abroad offers. Those students may be more likely to engage the intellectual challenges of going abroad than the younger students who are at times more drawn to the “abroad” more than they are the “study.”

“By and large, they know this is not a vacation,” Shallenberger writes. “They have chosen this travel experience over other possibilities because they want to encounter the world in new ways.”

While the nontraditional learner isn’t likely to take on a semester abroad, institutions shouldn’t swear off short-term programs of two or three weeks, especially those that can be embedded in longer courses. Indeed, both DePaul University and the University of Virginia have attracted a number of part-time learners to their study-abroad programs.

And, says Shallenberger, the experiences have led some to rethink their life goals, change employment or take on leadership roles within organizations. One student of Shallenberger’s even fell in love in the host nation and married.

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