Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Trends in Graduate Student Study Abroad

In their piece Graduate Student Learning Abroad: Emerging Trend? from the fall 2014 volume of International Higher Education, John M. Dirkx, Kristin Janka Millar, Brett Berquist, and Gina Vizvary survey the current landscape of study abroad at the graduate level.  They begin by pointing out that study abroad at the graduate level should be, and is, fundamentally different than at the undergraduate level.  They then go on to discuss the work of a new project at Michigan State University, the Graduate Learning Experiences and Outcomes study, which was formed to investigate “the landscape of international learning opportunities offered at the graduate level.”  From a recent survey of 15 US research universities that the study ran, it was discovered that most of the graduate-level study abroad programs were short-term (four weeks or less), faculty-led, and made up of 6-20 students.  Program costs are almost always covered by the students.  The universities surveyed offered programs to 59 different countries, with China being the most frequent destination.  The programs do not typically feature homestays; the students usually stay in tourist accommodations.  The programs themselves usually consist of a mix of lectures and experiential activities, such as field trips, research, and volunteer service.  The faculty leaders who were surveyed expressed their goals for the program to include international collaboration, preparing students for international careers, creating a global presence for their university, and challenging students’ perceptions of the world.  They use these trends to frame a call to action for greater research into how to administer graduate-level study abroad.  They conclude that “Graduate study-abroad experiences should complement and deepen the learning that occurs within a student’s graduate program,” but go on to pose several questions that must be explored further by the international education community.  Most importantly, what are the indicators of a successful study abroad experience at the graduate level, and how can we know that these programs are achieving the outcomes that we desire?

This piece poses some important and thought-provoking questions.  The Committee for Economic Development’s 2006 report, Education for Global Leadership, claims that “It is becoming increasingly important for U.S. companies of all sizes to succeed in overseas markets,” and as a result, warns that US students will need improved cross-cultural skills and foreign language competencies to compete in the global marketplace.  As the Michigan State survey showed, one of the main reasons that faculty lead graduate-level study abroad courses is to help students prepare for international careers.  This outcome plays right into the CED report’s call for global competence education.  In order to ensure that we effectively instill these competencies, we must heed the call of the Dirkx et. al piece and continue to question whether these programs are truly achieving our desired outcomes, and how these programs can be used to address future challenges and priorities.  Furthermore, we must continue to monitor the programs to make sure they are most beneficial to graduate students, and not just undergraduate programs that happen to be attended by graduate students.  If properly researched and monitored, graduate-level study abroad programs can lead to a new generation of advancements in global competence education, and therefore continued US economic security.

Dirkx, J. M., Millar, K. J., Berquist, B., & Vizvary, G. (2014). Graduate Student Learning Abroad: Emerging Trend?. International Higher Education, (77), 14-15.

Heintz, S., & Isaacson, W. (2006). Education for global leadership: The importance of international studies and foreign language education for US economic and national security.   

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