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Overseas Study Should Not End When Students Come Home

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U.S. college students can now study in virtually any country on the planet as overseas programs explode in popularity and diversity. At the college I lead, for example, Morocco and Vietnam are among the newer destinations on the list; Swaziland will join them soon.

You might be surprised, however, by a "study-abroad" location receiving much-needed new attention these days, one that the higher education sector has overlooked in the past: our own campuses.

It's about time. A young mind full of new global perspectives and experiences is a terrible thing to waste, and colleges have not done enough to reintegrate our globe-travelers when they return. If these students and their classmates on campus are going to benefit fully from international study, it's essential that we help them process -- and share -- their experiences once they're back.

As proud as we are of our overseas study program at Lewis & Clark College -- nearly two-thirds of our undergraduates take part, most going out in groups led by one of our own faculty -- its 50th anniversary has occasioned a close look at how we can make it even better. The more we explore the question, the more impressed we are by the opportunities for enhancement right here at home. Many of our peer schools seem to be of a similar mind.

At my college, and on the campuses of numerous other schools I have been hearing from, educators are experimenting with more effective ways to help our students counter their feelings of "reverse culture shock" and make successful transitions back to Portland, or Northampton, or Gambier, or whatever city their college calls home. Equally important, we're finding new ways to help students share the intellectual stores they have gathered while abroad.

I recently initiated a dialogue with fellow presidents of liberal arts colleges and overseas program coordinators to find out about their experiences with reintegration. What an array of promising programs and methods have crossed my desk. Coaching on how to translate the international experience into relevant material for a cover letter, a resume, and a job interview. Intercultural and global floors in the residence halls. Conferences where students give presentations on their international study experiences. Support groups for returning students. Welcome-back dinners. Enlistment of returning students to serve as overseas program ambassadors and advisors to their as-yet-untraveled fellow students.

The sheer number and diversity of these efforts demonstrate the accuracy of what Westmont College's off-campus programs coordinator told me. No one approach works with all students; a multifaceted approach is required.

I was impressed to find out about one college that sends study-abroad returnees, along with language and international students, to local K-12 schools for language and culture presentations. Another institution notifies professors when students in their classes have studied in a country relevant to the course at hand. As these efforts attest, returning students have a great deal to offer -- and we should give them every chance to become teachers as well as learners.

Here at Lewis & Clark, we connect returning students with academic advisors for one-on-one consultations and with courses tailored to students who have studied abroad. We encourage returning students to apply their international experiences to their senior theses and other research projects. We give study-abroad veterans the opportunity to tutor foreign-language students and to assist at pre-trip orientations for classmates, and many work in our Overseas and Off-Campus Programs office.

As a colleague from another college remarked, it's vitally important that our students bring back and retain more than their travel and tourist memories. We should push them to reflect, to ask themselves how their hometown, their college, and their country look to them now. What stereotypes and preconceptions did they find productively challenged? What new perspectives and insights did they gain? How will they integrate their experiences with their future lives and careers?

The overseas study experience does not end when students come back to campus. Let's make sure that what happens stateside is as enriching as what those students experienced halfway around the world.

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Barry Glassner is president of Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, and author of The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things.