“Mandatory” is a word oft loathed by college students—“mandatory” meetings with professors, “mandatory” core courses in complex or unusual topics and “mandatory” floor meetings right in the middle of the new episode of your favorite TV show elicit groans and eye-rolls. So, when I say that studying abroad should be mandatory, it sounds like I’m trying to turn study abroad into yet another roadblock in the way of graduation.
For some institutions, study abroad is a hurdle to be crossed, but only if a student chooses to take that path. Elizabethtown College requires students to complete two of five Signature Learning Experiences (SLEs) prior to graduation. One SLE is a cross-cultural experience, which allows “students to engage meaningfully with diverse cultures, experiences, and worldviews, by living and studying in a culture different from their own.” Though the study abroad program is not mandatory at E-town, it is an option for students on track for graduation.
Study abroad rates vary from campus to campus. According to data collected by US News, 91 percent of 2015 graduates from Lee University in Tennessee studied abroad. This is the highest number for a university where study abroad is not mandatory; Goucher College in Maryland and Soka University of America in California both boast that 100 percent of 2015 graduates studied abroad. Goucher and Soka, like E-town, are National Liberal Arts Colleges. Unlike those two schools, however, E-town only goes as far as encouraging students to travel, not requiring it.
This is the case with many universities, and it’s a reasonable one—studying abroad is a financially draining venture. When I took the opportunity to study abroad in the summer of 2016, the three-week trip to Ireland cost $3,700 (not including the extra $700 to earn credits for the trip). It costs a few pretty pennies to hop the pond. However, the rewards for paying the cost more than compensate. NAFSA: Association of International Educators found that during the 2014 – 2015 school year, 313,415 students earned credits through study abroad programs. According to NAFSA, this represents only 1.5 percent of U.S. university students. Even with so many institutions encouraging study abroad programs, and even with the variety of locations and themes for these programs, there is a major deficit in American students and the opportunities to study abroad.
So, why should we bother making study abroad mandatory? One reason is that the cost is not set in stone; universities and state- or nation-wide organizations provide scholarships for the very purpose of travelling to a new country. The Gilman Scholarship, for example, awards more than $14.5 million in scholarships for U.S. undergrads to study abroad. While such programs do require an extensive application process, a Google search or visit to an institution’s study abroad office reveals a plethora of beneficiaries.
Another reason to study abroad is that the experience is unlike anything a student can experience within the United States. The University of California, Merced researched the effect of study abroad programs on student outcomes, and found that 84 percent of students who went abroad felt the experience was beneficial in gaining and developing skills for the job market, while 80 percent said the exposure to unique environments made the transition to “diverse work environments” easier. A whopping 100 percent of surveyed students agreed that they saw personal academic improvement after returning from a study abroad program. Increases in maturity level, self-confidence and tolerance were also observed in study abroad alumni.
When asked about my trip, I describe my study abroad experience as “life-changing.” And this is coming from someone who went to a European, English-speaking country for less than a month. Imagine the experience of travelling to someplace like Japan or Portugal, where the language and customs are vastly different from those in the U.S. Imagine what someone can learn from those places, both about other cultures and themselves.
Maybe “mandatory” doesn’t have to correlate with “bad” or “annoying.” Study abroad can still be exhilarating and empowering if an institution makes it a requirement for undergraduate students. We live in a world where borders are reinforced and nationalism rules; it’s about time we tear these barriers down.