by Byron Francis, Founder and Director of World Smart
The recent political developments have been a source of alarm and controversy for many Americans. Constructing a wall, turning away foreigners, and monitoring immigrants seem to have become viable policies for our leaders. Depending on your political leanings, a recent executive order pertaining to travel and entry into the United states can be seen as bigoted and xenophobic or as a prudent security measure. It is no secret that the world can be a dangerous place. However, we can look at our history to see that a policy of isolationism has never prevented the United States from being involved in armed conflict.
As the Director of World Smart, students and parents often ask questions concerning the safety of traveling abroad. It’s clear that people’s suspicions, fears, and prejudices of unfamiliar populations and countries are stirred by politicians, the media, and other entities. I often point out that, despite how the media can make us feel, the world is actually safer now than it has ever been.
Unfortunately, our fears as a nation are often played out through military intervention, and other contentious means. However, I believe our foreign policy does not need to be wielded like a hammer and every problem we encounter is not a nail. There is room for mutual understanding and study abroad should be used as a tool to cultivate it.
Studying abroad is often described in romanticized terms. There are, however, tangible benefits to be gained by students seeing the world outside of their comfort zones. With that in mind, there are three key reasons I believe studying abroad is essential, especially for underrepresented students.
First, the psychological benefits of studying abroad have been well documented. In a study conducted by the Institute of International Education of Students, 97% of students indicated studying abroad served as a catalyst for maturity, 96% reported a significant increase in self-confidence and 95% proclaimed that it had a lasting impact on their perception of the world. Students who spend time abroad also develop more emotional stability.
Second, studying abroad is also a great way to develop cultural competency. 98% of study abroad students reported studying abroad helped them better understand their own values and biases. 82% said they developed a more nuanced global perspective and 94% stated their experience continues to influence interactions with people from various cultures. Also, more than 50% report still being friends with students they met while abroad. This suggests studying abroad can help alleviate the tensions between countries if more of those relationships can be created and maintained.
Third, we must help students fully realize their employability. Assuming our education system is designed to produce adults that thrive in the workforce and potentially become creators of jobs, we have to consider enrichment activities that help achieve that end, especially if those students come from disadvantaged backgrounds. According to the Erasmus Study conducted by the E.U. (the entire study can be found here), 64% of employers think an international experience is important and say graduates with an international background are often given greater professional responsibility. Also, students who study abroad are 50% less likely to face long-term unemployment than their peers. These are huge (no pun intended) implications for demographics that are more likely to suffer from unemployment and have difficulty finding gainful work.
If we believe our students are truly tomorrow’s leaders, their understanding and ability to collaborate with people of various cultures will be paramount to the continued global leadership of our country. Yes, our students will have opportunities to have fun and find adventure on their trips. However, if we are to combat prejudices and create a world with less conflict, education leaders need to realize that cross-cultural exchanges are more than simply having a good time. Given our current political climate, studying abroad has become more important than it has ever been.