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Embracing the New Globalism: a Challenge to Rethink Study Abroad

The following is by William G. Durden, former president of Dickinson College. It is adapted from a speech he gave Wednesday at the Forum on Education Abroad’s annual meeting in San Diego.

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GlobeHigher education in the United States is not prepared to lead the future of study abroad.

It is mired in past assumptions and internal professional disputes disconnected from public demand and opportunity. And despite “cosmetic” tweaks to traditional programs, what is potentially the future of education abroad eludes us.

American colleges are not accommodating a student population that is interconnected globally, that is, to each other via technology, but not connected to them. Students increasingly are trying to navigate around officially offered study-abroad programs to get what they want and, arguably, need for the world they face in the future. They mirror the entrepreneurial spirit of their millennial generation and maneuver for bespoke programs that they believe will fulfill their needs rather than accept the off-the-shelf programs offered by colleges.

The question before us is: What will study-abroad professionals do in the face of this change? I suggest that without embracing change, they will miss a critical opportunity to reshape education abroad. But also, they will relinquish participation in broader efforts to change the future of American higher education. Further, without significant retooling, they risk marginalization and being hopelessly subject to external pressures by faculty, administrators, and those who would reduce the cost of higher education through the elimination of what are falsely considered superfluous programs. Education abroad is arguably an easy target because it remains a “luxury” in financially stressed higher education in the minds of much of the public, despite decades of compelling arguments to the contrary.

To change, study abroad needs to focus on appealing to a new crop of students, whom I call the new globalists.

These students desire academic programs that are interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary. They want the academic equivalent of the ability to perceive connection, similarity, and even the creative element, in what at first seem disparate elements. They believe American university culture is transcendentally global and that it celebrates movement, momentum, entrepreneurialism, invention. and risk-taking.  They believe it preaches opportunity and provides examples of how to finance, distribute, and market ideas widely.

They probably don’t expect their careers and their lives to unfold exclusively in the United States, but rather in globalized cities like New York, London, Buenos Aires, or Shanghai, with frequent travel between them.

The language of the new globalism is English, and its modes of communication are the Internet and social media. The sphere of ideas and actions operates beyond a specific nation or culture, with most time spent far removed from what previous generations would deem a “distinctive local culture.”

In fact, this new globalism generally dismisses any claim that there remain significant differences across cultures today and thus recognizes a prevailing “sameness” of life across the globe as defined by mass consumerism, common technologies, and shared aspirational and financial values. Transculturalism is the watchword.

While this new globalism might sound superficial, there is a compelling desire by these students to be exposed during their undergraduate education to critical global challenges that they believe are shared by all peoples regardless of nationality or cultural origin. Among these challenges are: sustainability, peace, politics, ecology, consumption, health, technology, relationships, imagination and creativity, community building, immigration, global ethics, human rights, social change, wealth distribution and poverty, and entrepreneurialism.  And whereas study-abroad professionals worry about American students overseas having contact with locals, students of the new globalism freely build shared alliances via the Internet and through issue-focused face-to-face meetings all over the world.

In fact, the very nature of powerfully shared global concerns simply reinforces students’ belief in the “sameness” of the world. Study abroad is about commonality, not difference, and, unfortunately, traditional study abroad in the United States is based upon exposing students to cultural difference, not commonality.

I predict these students will increasingly be affected by the growing message that they need to engage in more purposeful activities while on study abroad, such as community service and internships, to be successful in a demanding global economy. And in our age of accountability,  there will be increasing pressure upon colleges to offer study-abroad programs that are pragmatically oriented.

None of the existing approaches to study abroad in the United States fully accommodate the new globalism, despite some promising isolated efforts.

If you accept my argument, how are study-abroad professionals and others in higher education to proceed? Of course, we can judge the new globalism that I describe as inappropriate, shallow, the playground of the spoiled and wealthy who miss the point of study abroad. For me personally, it is a sad day when the world is judged without variety and disparate voices, beliefs, and practices. But perhaps I am just of another generation and the world I knew no longer exists. Perhaps what I thought was different is now trivial and the difference is found in approaches to shared challenges. Perhaps the globalism, or better, internationalism, I grew up with morphed into something else that is still a globalism that “works” for the coming generations and is a critical pursuit for the world they face. That is always a possibility and should not be denigrated. And if this is, indeed, the case, what guides study abroad in the United States must be rethought radically.

Here are a few ideas on how study-abroad professionals can start to do that:

  1. Work with faculty to advance interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary studies on campus and overseas. The new globalists are receptive to connections among the humanities, sciences, social sciences, and the arts. Such connections are the source of solutions to shared global challenges.
  2. Work with faculty to design “customized” course-related education abroad  that focuses on globally shared challenges.  These courses may include pre- or post-education-abroad coursework that introduces students to distinctive contributions of another culture to solve shared challenges.
  3. Redefine what it means in American higher education to be a global campus. Establish a campus culture that encourages a wide variety of students to focus on shared global challenges. Seek commonality in seeming difference, and appreciate distinctive approaches to these challenges through differing cultural backgrounds.
  4. Spearhead efforts to instill undergraduates with the ambition to achieve a global lifestyle through education abroad and the pursuit of solutions to shared global challenges.
  5. Join with other higher-education leaders to identify the role of digital technologies in undergraduate education.  Add to this the potential of an undergraduate education that involves students and faculty spending considerable time away from one physical campus.

The need for fundamental change in education abroad—and may I add American higher education more broadly—stands before us as a challenge to belief in the immutability and durability of current practice. It is one I hope study abroad will embrace.

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