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Capturing the Educational Moments in International Education

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Nearly 40 percent of international students at U.S. colleges and universities have few or no close American friends. The most traveled destination for American college students remains London, with Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand attracting half of all students who study abroad.

Over the last two decades, we have internationalized many of our campuses. But, we are failing to capture the educational moments in this activity.

The study released this month by Elisabeth Gareis in the Journal of International and Intercultural Communication is sobering. One in four international students admitted that they have come to view Americans as close-minded and not interested in other cultures. The most troubling responses come from students from China and other East Asian countries. Bringing their best and brightest to the United States where they may become alienated does not make a lot of educational or foreign policy sense.

For those of us who work with these students, the results are not surprising. While we work hard to bring international students to our campuses, we often do not work strategically to integrate them. This leaves too many international students living, studying and socializing only with other international students.

The main barrier is conceiving of simple ways for international students to overcome their fear of embarrassment and shyness to make those first critical connections. We could start by focusing on residential halls and being more strategic about where international students live, and by using very simple techniques from the experiential education field to integrate them during the first few months of classes.

Second, we need to redirect where American students are studying and rethink the kinds of experiences they need to have abroad. We need to get them interested in exploring India, China, Indonesia, Brazil, Jordan, Turkey and other places that play strategic roles in their regions and worldwide. Students need to be deeply immersed in these cultures. They should be doing homestays, working on research projects with local organizations, and involved in programs that get them outside the urban cores. At the very least, they should be learning local languages and developing language-learning skills.

Again, we can address this issue fairly easily. It has become much easier to get students into these countries. Lots of study abroad providers run excellent programs and a new generation of faculty is excited to develop custom programs with the growing list of interesting higher education partners available in these countries.

We are on the verge of truly internationalizing our campuses in deep and meaningful ways. Of course we all want (and need) to do more. But in times of tight budgets, we should start by scrutinizing everything we are doing to ensure that we capture the educational moments available in our current activities. Every international student on our campus should be fully integrated into the student body, and every student studying abroad should be on a challenging and transformative program.