• August 30, 2015

Colleges Help Students to Translate the Benefits of Study Abroad

Colleges Help Students to Translate the Benefits of Study Abroad 1

Owen Riley for The Chronicle

Constancio K. Nakuma, a professor of French at Clemson U., developed a program to help students be more engaged during their time in other countries.

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close Colleges Help Students to Translate the Benefits of Study Abroad 1

Owen Riley for The Chronicle

Constancio K. Nakuma, a professor of French at Clemson U., developed a program to help students be more engaged during their time in other countries.

Clemson University administrators were troubled by what they discovered on YouTube in the summer of 2008. Students at the university had posted videos of themselves drinking and partying during their study abroad in Spain, and the videos had been widely circulated.

Many feared that the videos would wind up in the hands of employers and would hurt students' chances of being hired. And the images certainly didn't paint Clemson's Office of International Affairs in a positive light.

"The video was so outrageous that I realized change was urgently necessary," says Constancio K. Nakuma, a French professor and an associate dean in the humanities college.

In the spring semester of the following year, Mr. Nakuma sponsored a pilot program, Cultural Literacies Across Media, to encourage study-abroad students to be more thoughtful about their time in other countries. The course, which is now officially part of the Clemson curriculum, teaches students how to understand their international experience and present it to the world using multimedia.

"This program is an attempt to reveal what it is that people who did study abroad mean when they say, 'Oh, wow, that totally transformed me,'" Mr. Nakuma says.

Helping students do that is a challenge many colleges face. It was a hot topic at the recent Forum on Education Abroad conference, in Charlotte. And recent research at Michigan State University indicates that colleges may be right to worry. The Collegiate Employment Research Institute there found that many employers did not value time spent abroad—in large part, because students couldn't articulate its value.

As a former study-abroad student himself, Mr. Nakuma knows firsthand that international study can be a life-changing experience. And he's learned how to talk about it. When he studied in France during his undergraduate days at a Ghanaian university, he was forced to adapt to the French language and culture. That, Mr. Nakuma says, clarified and deepened his way of thinking.

"With the mirror of the other, you begin to see yourself for who you are," he says. "You begin to see yourself in the wider world."

Colleges, Mr. Nakuma says, must find ways to make those kinds of personal transformations more palpable both to study-abroad students and to their prospective employers.

A Common Problem

Inge E. Steglitz, for one, is distressed by the thought that students are selling themselves short.

"I continue to be amazed by students' inability to articulate what they've learned," says Ms. Steglitz, assistant director of Michigan State's Office of Study Abroad. "'I can't put it into words' is not a convincing argument in a job interview."

Research done by Michigan State in 2008 seems to back up her view. That year the employment institute issued a report stating that study abroad did not substantially increase a student's chance of getting a job upon graduation. Because many students could not explain their international experiences in a compelling way, the report said, many employers did not highly value those experiences.

"Students have given very little thought to how their study abroad has shaped and prepared them for the world of work," wrote Philip D. Gardner, director of the institute. "In other words, graduating seniors have flunked one of their most important exams—the hiring interview—because they were not prepared with appropriate examples of skills required from their international experiences."

In response to the report, Michigan State developed a workshop to train study-abroad students in how to speak about their experiences, called Unpacking Your Study Abroad Experience.

During her "unpacking" sessions, Linda S. Gross, associate director of career services, interviews students about their studies overseas and attempts to glean what they learned that might be of value to an employer. At the end of each interview, Ms. Gross compiles a list of bullet points the student can use on his or her résumé.

According to Ms. Gross, that kind of retrospective reflection is essential for students to capitalize on their international experiences. "Study abroad doesn't count to an employer unless the job candidate can say how it has made them a better person, scholar, citizen, and professional," she says. "We need to think across the academy on how we can prompt reflection on study abroad so that students can make meaning of the experience for themselves."

A New Approach

Many study-abroad students keep journals or participate in some form of a debriefing. But at Clemson, students document their international experience for public consumption. Students in the cultural-literacies course do not simply pontificate about what they have learned; they have to showcase their discoveries in online photos, blog posts, and documentaries.

Tharon W. Howard, a professor of English, and his graduate assistant require students to engage with citizens in their host countries to complete their projects. After lessons in how to interpret cultural symbols and understand people who are different from themselves, students venture into foreign communities with cameras and notepads to investigate social issues, cultural artifacts, and business practices.

Randy D. Nichols, Mr. Howard's teaching assistant, says that exposure to a different culture will give students insight not only into alternative perspectives but also into their own identities. "Oftentimes our own cultures are invisible to us until we encounter other cultures," he says. "The dominant culture names the other cultures, but it doesn't name itself."

For Mr. Howard, who also directs a multimedia center at Clemson, the multimedia focus of the program is one of its most exciting features. He says that by giving students new communication tools, he is also giving them new ways of understanding and interpreting the world.

"There's that old adage that if you want to learn something, you teach it to somebody else," he says. "That's the underlying idea here."

Through their blogs, students are linked not only to their professors and fellow students but also to the broader online community. And the interactivity built into the blogs allows students to have conversations with a wide range of people about their cultural discoveries.

The multimedia focus has also generated a great deal of student enthusiasm, says Mr. Nichols. "Before now, these students were consumers of Web sites, not producers," he says, "but all of them will be working in the 21st-century workplace, and having these technological skills gives them a great sense of comfort."

Learning and Giving Back

By creating blogs about their study-abroad experience, Clemson students are also contributing to a university collection of information on cultures around the world. In this way, Mr. Howard says, the students give back to the campus community that sent them abroad.

The cultural-literacies project covers an eclectic spectrum of subjects. For example, one student's video project, "The Au Pair Diaries," featured confessions of au pairs about what went on behind closed doors in the homes of families they worked for and also included details about their social lives. Another video focused on the way Belgian chocolate companies marketed their products.

Jennifer D. McAmis, a rising senior and public-policy major at Clemson, created a film analyzing Argentinian social movements through the lens of graffiti. At the beginning of her video, Ms. McAmis explained why she chose her subject matter. "Graffiti is an anonymous art form through which people feel free to express themselves even if their feelings are not accepted in the mainstream of politics or culture," she says.

Ms. McAmis followed protesters and interviewed a former state prisoner named Jose, providing insight into the sources of unhappiness among working-class Argentinians and others in Argentina who want to change the status quo.

The records the students create of their experiences also serve as memory aids. Meg K. Sparkman, a 2010 graduate, says the videos she made in the course help her recall what she learned in Spain. Ms. Sparkman, a tourism and Spanish major, worked as a receptionist in a youth hostel and as an English tutor. The experience taught her, for example, how to adapt as a teacher to overcome language boundaries. When Ms. Sparkman realized that the Spanish she knew did not always suffice to tutor a small child, she provided educational cartoons.

When she returns to her blog, she is reminded both of the friends she made and the social phenomena she noticed, such as a political rift between traditional and modernist Spaniards.

"I will always have these videos, so I can go back in 10 years and look at them," she says. "They definitely helped me put experiences into words that were hard to describe."


1. lavakare - July 23, 2010 at 05:30 am

I think when we plan Study Abroad programs for foreign students, such a preparatory exercize would be very useful.


2. 22228715 - July 23, 2010 at 08:36 am

Good work. "Going abroad" is analogous to "going to college." It is not enough to just go, be there, experience it, make friends, do interesting things, have a good time. Although that might be life-changing, it becomes educational when there is reflection, reorganization, application, contextual research, new thinking, writing, documentation, theoretical overlay, meaning-making...

3. csgirl - July 23, 2010 at 08:46 am

The main reason most students can't articulate the value of going on study abroad programs is that there is no value in the typical program. The students go to be tourists and party, and the colleges run the programs to make money. While I think there is immense value in going overseas, the real learning only happens when you go on your own and try to inegrate into the culture. Exchange programs where kids live with a foreign family and go to school at a local program are a good way to really learn about a culture. But going in a pack of other American kids, chaperoned by Americans, and going to (often) a branch of an American university overseas, is not a way to truly learn another culture. It is just a party opportunity.

4. honore - July 23, 2010 at 08:51 am

Typically the "lessons learned" from the study abroad experience are ones that may take a lifetime to fully ascertain and may never be articulated in words, but on an intimate, personal one. What's the big deal?

What DOES remain a constant for all participants is that they typically reflect on the experience, the contact with "others" and most importantly on how they (in the case of Americans) perceive themselves AND just as importantly as OTHERS see us.

THAT lesson is invaluable in anyone's personal development. It would be great if all Americans could experience life in other contexts that remove them from the isolation, claustrophobia and cultural myopia of malls, rotisserie tanning spas and endless drive-up windows. But hey, even an artificial ski slope in the UAE can be a learning moment.

Study abroad should be actively encouraged (and funding made available) for ALL students who want to do them or are we still going to produce "International Studies" majors that haven't the campus parking lot?

...Madison, WI

5. vinvernizzi - July 23, 2010 at 09:32 am

One aspect thathas changed trips aborad and taken away from the potential learning experience they can be is technology. Students travel, take their classes, and if living with a family, tend to come home to Facebook and not to their exchange families. College life also teaches them to live with others their own age and does little to teach them to live in a family setting after 18. Students find it difficult to sit at table with families, chat. They want to eat quickly and run off to Facebook to keep in touch with their friends back home. Granted, not all, but enough of them do work in this manner. We need to somehow get across to them the importance of knowing other culture, of understanding them, of living something different. We, as Americans, have always seemed to lag behind in world understanding. We continue to do so.

6. 11319582 - July 23, 2010 at 10:12 am

Let me first declare my interest, as the publisher of the imminent Becoming World Wise: A Guide to Global Learning
Richard Slimbach (http://stylus.styluspub.com/Books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=205806)
As a publisher in higher ed, and a parent of students who studied abroad, I have long felt that that study abroad needed to be done with some educational intentionality, with some learning goals and reflective activities bracketing the experience. Rich Slimbach's book is intended to provide students with the necessary context. I hope that it presages a sea-change in how we all do study abroad in the future.

7. 22074041 - July 23, 2010 at 10:45 am

One way to help returning American students articulate the value of their study abroad experience is to provide them specific questions and follow-on questions to which to respond. These should help frame their thinking and shape their analysis and critical exploration of whatthey gained. But I also know that it may take years before a person has truly integrated the meaning of this "life-changing" experience.... Naomi F. Collins, Ph.D. Author of "Through Dark Days and White Nights: Four Decades Observing A Changing Russia."

8. rachaelski - July 23, 2010 at 01:29 pm

It's all about the framing of the study abroad trip. At my college, we focused on service learning, and all students were required to do a service learning trip (with options in country and abroad). You picked your trip based on location and the mission/goal of the trip. We traveled in a group of 12 or so Americans, yet we had a purpose to focus on. That being said, I attended a trip to a developing Asian nation, which may have weeded out those seeking a chance to party.

9. jboncek - July 23, 2010 at 06:08 pm

I suspect many American students don't speak a foreign language, so when they end up overseas they hang out with other American students or local American wannabees.

10. jffoster - July 24, 2010 at 12:26 pm

I agree with csgirl (3) that the typical Americans-Study-Abroad program is shallow, hardly more than a tourist jaunt, and has little value. There are exceptional atypical programs of course. Contended it is that one of them is at Clemson, but I find this paragraph in the post original a cause for some concern"

"Tharon W. Howard, a professor of English, and his graduate assistant require students to engage with citizens in their host countries to complete their projects. After lessons in how to interpret cultural symbols and understand people who are different from themselves, students venture into foreign communities with cameras and notepads to investigate social issues, cultural artifacts, and business practices."

Did the university's Human Subjects Review Board approve of this?

How much training in anthropological and / or sociological field work has Professor of English Howard had? "Cultural Studies" doesn't count.

Is this a case of loosing the untrained or marginally trained upon the unwary?

11. fredman - July 24, 2010 at 05:27 pm

It's funny how we discuss american students studying abroad, but has anyone run the numbers to see how many foreign students come HERE to study vs how many american students GO THERE to study?
My guess is the number is around 200:1 at least.

I see SOME of the foreign students intermingling with american (students), but by and large the foreign students hang with their compatriots while here in the USA, they are here to get an education and that's it. I'm fine with that.

You look at the faculty of any foreign university, almost all of them have come here to study, but you look at our faculty in the USA and almost none of them have studied outside the USA, save for a few folks that could not get into med school(s) here.

12. ikant - July 24, 2010 at 07:28 pm

The Clemson program is interesting, I guess, but (as others have said) it seems to miss the point entirely. The reason that students can't articulate the value of their study-abroad experience isn't because they "take a lifetime," or whatever, but because the value is generally very low. The academic component of the programs is often laughable, the language requirements are almost nil, and the students spend much of their time drunk. And why wouldn't they? That's precisely what they do here.

13. 22074041 - July 24, 2010 at 07:54 pm

In my experience interviewing returning students, I've learned that they have gained very real experience and knowledge, but that they are helped articulating these by replying to well-structured specific questions about their learning, both about their subject area and about their awareness of cultural differences and the effect of these in living and working in other contexts.

As for "fredman's" comment above about the ratio of incoming international students to American students headed abroad - no need to guess. The numbers are clear and published in "Open Doors," by I.I.E.

That said - there's no doubt that students who develop a comfortable level of language skills will gain a great deal more from their experience abroad than those who cannot converse in anything but English (in a country in which English is not the primary language). Naomi F. Collins, Ph.D. Consultant

14. gaprofessor - July 25, 2010 at 09:20 am

So we have lots of posts critical of study abroad and also extended to students coming to the USA from abroad. I suspect that most of the negative comments are like those of some of my colleagues who view study abroad as a glorified holiday. Well, I suspect there are some like that--just as there are courses on campus that are pretty much a joke. I know from my experience running my program from 10 years, that my students come back 10 years later and still talk about how the program changed their lives. My students find out more about themselves in a month than they do in 4 years on campus. I generally have 3 outcomes for students. First, students really find out that they want to be in our profession--actually find out what we do rather than learning about it in a classroom. Some find out that their world view changes and it shows them that what they learn back home can be looked at in quite different ways. The final group finds out that they might like our profession, but not to do it for a living. They often find clarity in professional direction. I would say that this is a bit more than a holiday in Africa. I have also had a number of students return to Africa to work in various capacities. I would say from my experience it is easy to see what the students are getting.

Second, bit about foreign students coming to the USA. I guess that some Americans do forget that their ancestors won the prison ship lottery in some previous generation. So what if lots of students come here. Once again, comments above are often just ignorant. Sure my Asian and African students often hang out with other expats--what the hell do you expect. Many of them find some comfort in things from back home. At the same time most of them make close American friends and contribute greatly to showing many of our very provincial students that the world is a damned small place and we better get used to the neighbors.

15. chuwenyiwutu - July 27, 2010 at 02:34 am

My personal feelings from observing Aisan kids studying in U.S and reflecting on how I experience my study-aboard life here in the U.S is: it is really important for me to have the courage,lanugage skills,cultural awareness to leave the box and make contact with the local people.

16. tharonh - July 30, 2010 at 01:16 pm

jffoster asked an important question about whether we obtained IRB, Human Subjects approval at Clemson for the CLAM course, and I would encourage anyone planning to develop a program like this to be certain to make this approval an early part of your curriculum development process. Because of my experience working with the IRB to ensure that the graduate seminars I teach in empirical research methods were approved, I knew we had to address this issues before the course could be approved by the University Curriculum Committee, So I met with the director of the IRB, and we had a series of useful conversations about how to make sure that the digital narratives we ask students to produce stayed inside the journalist models and didn't stray into the realm of published research. Alternatively, in those cases where students and faculty actually did wish to conduct ethnographic field research during their study abroad experiences, we developed models of informed consent agreements, video releases, and IRB training that would be needed. Also, because the CLAM program was focusing on how analysis of communication practices in different media reveal a great deal about a culture, and because we were asking students to create social media narratives demonstrating what they had learned, we also made sure that our curriculum dealt with intellectual property, privacy, and fair use issues which authors of social media need to understand in order to avoid ethical and legal problems. Meeting with IRB officials and our university's legal counsel early in the curriculum development process was really helpful because it allowed us to make informed decisions about what we needed to do to prepare our students more effectively.

For those who are thinking about designing a course along similar lines, I would also recommend taking an inclusive, trans-disciplinary approach to your course if you wish it to service the entire university community. It's a lot easier to get the buy-in and support of faculty across campus if you allow faculty in Architecture, Languages, International Business, Rhetoric, Management, Media Arts, Psychology, Communication Studies, and even Anthropology and Sociology to lend the important contributions they have to offer to students' study-abroad experiences. Many study-abroad programs are led by faculty from a wide variety of disciplines, disciplines which offer students important perspectives on culture. These faculty are much more willing to supplement the instruction they already provide with the course you offer if you don't devalue their disciplines by insisting on a narrow definition of who can contribute to the study of culture. This is somewhat analogous to writing across the curriculum programs which taught us that we fail to produce graduates who write well if we insist that only writing teachers can teach writing. With CLAM, we've found that we can have a more positive impact on students' social media authoring skills and their study abroad experiences across campus by taking a similar inclusive and trans-disciplinary approach.

Clemson, SC

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