St. Helena’s Dan Whitehurst recalls spending his first semester of college sailing several of the seven seas. “We started in New York, sailed across the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, visiting Portugal, Spain, Italy, France, Greece, Turkey and Egypt along the way.”
Whitehurst and his Semester-at-Sea classmates eventually crossed the Suez Canal to the Indian Ocean, stopping in India and Malaysia. They traveled on to Thailand, Hong Kong, and Japan, before finally returning back home to California.
“In that one semester,” Whitehurst remembers, “I saw the range of human experience — rich and poor, ancient and modern, urban and rural. Not a week goes by that I don’t draw on the images and observations from that voyage.”
In 2006, the Senate unanimously passed a resolution stating, “Study abroad programs help students from the United States to gain valuable global knowledge and cultural understanding, and forms an integral part of their education.”
The Senate’s action followed a widely published report from National Geographic which found 87 percent of American students 18-24 years old could not locate Iraq on a world map, 83 percent didn’t know where Afghanistan was, while 58 percent couldn’t locate Japan. Eleven percent of students were not even able to find the United States!
The resolution added, “Ensuring that the citizens of the United States are globally literate is the responsibility of the educational system of the United States.”
There are few better ways to develop the knowledge and perspectives needed to function in a global economy than to study in another country. That is one of the reasons why more than 623,000 students from other nations are currently studying in the U.S.
September 11, 2001, slowed the flow of international students coming to America. However, the Institute of International Education (IIE) reports that this nation’s colleges and universities continue to be the “premier destination” for students from abroad.
On the other side of the educational exchange equation, nearly a quarter million U.S. college and university students studied abroad in the 2006-2007 academic year, an 8.2 percent increase from the previous year and 150 percent growth over the past 10 years.
While the greatest global economic growth is taking place across Asia, the majority of U.S. students continue to study in Europe, with most choosing campuses in the United Kingdom. Nonetheless, IIE reports that American students studying in Asia have increased by 20 percent, Africa by 19 percent, followed by Latin America and the Middle East with increases of 7 percent each.
College students looking to distinguish themselves are increasingly aware that fluency in Spanish, Mandarin or Arabic may give them a significant leg up in a competitive job market.
Study abroad is no longer limited to students from wealthier families. According to NAFSA: Association of International Educators, universities and colleges are required by federal law to disburse aid funds to eligible students participating in approved programs. Currently enrolled and prospective college students should ask campus financial aid counselors about their rules and procedures for using aid to study abroad.
Santa Rosa Junior College is among California community colleges that conduct study abroad programs with partners such as the American Institute for Foreign Study. SRJC’s 2009 summer and fall offerings include London, Costa Rica, Paris, and Florence.
Study abroad not only opens doors to foreign language learning, it also empowers students to better understand themselves and others through a comparison of cultural values and ways of life.
“One of the great benefits of study abroad is stepping outside of your own culture and looking at your customs and values through the eyes of others,” said Whitehurst, who became one of the youngest mayors of a major American city and also taught at Harvard’s JFK School of Government.
“We returned with a new appreciation of the greatness of our country,” he continued. “We realized how much we took for granted — political and religious freedom, economic opportunity and social mobility, artistic creativity and tolerance.” He also recalled getting a sense of how the U.S. was viewed in other parts of the world — for better and for worse.
Mr. Whitehurst concluded, “You can’t really know your own country until you spend time away from it.”
(Tom Brown is a St. Helena resident who served as a dean at Saint Mary’s College of California for 27 years. He currently is a consultant and speaker at colleges and universities that are seeking to keep more of the students they enroll. Send comments, questions or suggestions for future columns to: firstname.lastname@example.org.)