No matter how intellectually stimulating, resourceful and diverse, a college campus may be, there is one crucial learning experience you cannot have unless you leave it—study abroad. The only way to begin to grasp the immense complexity and beauty of the world we live in is to experience it for yourself from a different perspective than the one you have today.
This week I’m in Madrid, where I was born and raised, went to college and lived for about a decade after graduate school. I’m attending the Future Trends Forum organized by the Bankinter Foundation for Innovation, on whose board I serve. I’m also scoping out opportunities for a short summer program I’ll be running here this summer with my Mason colleague Gregory Unruh.
As I walk around the city, I can’t help but reflect on how much study abroad has shaped my life. Growing up, my parents made sure I spent summers in France, England and Germany. After college, a generous Fulbright scholarship allowed me to get my doctorate in the United States. Nothing I have done professionally would have been possible without these experiences. I would not be leading a great American university, would not serve on the Bankinter Foundation or any of my other boards. I would not have had the wealth of relationships, friendships and perspectives that make me who I am.
I wish all college students had a chance to go abroad at least once. I know study abroad is expensive in time and dollar terms and impractical for many students in the U.S. and elsewhere. Yet many students don’t do it because they simply don’t think it is that important. Because they, or their schools, don’t make it a priority.
Here are some data nuggets from the recently released 2016 Open Doors Report on International Education Exchange, from the Institute of International Education:
- More than 313,000 U.S. students received class credit for studying abroad during the 2014-15 academic year, an increase of 3 percent from the previous year – but that’s still only about 10 percent of U.S. students studying abroad. (An additional 22,000 students participated in non-credit work, internships and volunteering abroad).
- During the 2015-16 academic year, international students in the U.S. surpassed 1 million for the first time, an increase of 7 percent (although that group still makes up only 5 percent of students in U.S. colleges and universities).
- One-third of international students came to the U.S. to study engineering, math or computer science. But American students going abroad tend to be centered around the humanities.
- There is a gender gap flowing in both directions. Only 43 percent of students who came to the U.S. in 2015-16 are female. But U.S. women accounted for 67 percent of U.S. students studying abroad.
- A hopeful statistic: Twenty-seven percent of U.S. students who studied abroad in 2014-15 identified as racial or ethnic minorities – 10 percent higher than a decade ago.
At Mason we are continually trying to find ways for the majority of our students to be able to study abroad so they are better prepared to succeed in a global economy and better understand their neighbors around the world. We have a long way to go, but we are making some progress, both in the number of U.S. students who go overseas and the number of international students who come to the U.S.
I encourage all Mason students to visit the university’s Study Abroad office to learn more about the different programs available for an international learning experience. There’s a very good chance that one of them would work for you. I encourage you to consider spending a semester at our own campus in South Korea. You may even choose Prof. Unruh’s and my program to Madrid this summer.
As the then chancellor of the State University of New York Ernest Boyer wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 1972, a campus should be seen as a base of operation, not a place of confinement. That’s a perfect way to look at it. I encourage you to get out of our wonderful campus and see the world. You’ll never look at it the same way!