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International Education: So Much More Than Study Abroad

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As high school seniors evaluate colleges and universities across the country, I've met many who are looking to identify programs that offer an "international education." For most, this simply means looking for opportunities to study abroad for all or part of a year. However, thinking about global education in terms of simply studying abroad is an approach that is far too shortsighted.

In addition to overseas experiences, a true international education constantly exposes students to ideas and issues that define today's world. This should happen when students are studying on campus as well as when they're studying abroad, and it should be taking place no matter what a student happens to be studying.

There are many ways students can attain a global education, whether based at a rural campus in the Midwest such as Grinnell's or at an urban institution. By considering factors such as the international diversity of students on campus, opportunities to hear from visiting foreign scholars and the number of interdisciplinary courses and programs offered at a school, prospective students have other criteria through which to thoughtfully evaluate the international scope of an institution.

For prospective students and parents looking for the most international education possible, I recommend considering the following areas:

  • Look beyond specific majors and departments -- Find out how different courses fit together to give a fuller understanding of a particular region of the world or an important topic: for example, is a history course on China tied to an economics course on China (say, through an East Asian Studies program)? Global citizens know how to bring together different skills and disciplines (for example: how chemistry, economics and political science all contribute to a comprehensive understanding of global climate change). Instead of focusing solely on majors, prospective students should evaluate the availability of interdisciplinary courses and programs within the curriculum. College graduates need to use a variety of skills and perspectives to make their way in the world.
  • Identify the international elements of different majors -- When selecting a college or major, it is important to identify which courses include topics or material from outside the U.S. Some areas of study such as French or history have inherent global relevance, but almost all other courses do as well. For example, majoring in music encourages students to discuss theories and musicians from around the globe, and students studying natural sciences may have an opportunity to study research papers authored by foreign scientists as well as work in laboratories outside the U.S. Does the college or university showcase the international dimension of all its areas of study? Is the word "international" used only to describe certain areas of the curriculum?
  • Gauge how passionate students are about international issues -- Before deciding on a college, students should know what recent campus events have included global themes. The campus newspaper and calendar offer great insights into what current students are passionate about. Are the conversations limited to the campus bubble, or is there an active dialogue about world events?
  • Think about the study abroad opportunity that's right for you -- Nearly every college has a study abroad program, but it shouldn't be a 'one size fits all' approach. Students should research how they will be guided to select an international program that complements their areas of interest. Find out where the college's or university's students currently go and what the students do at those sites: in addition to taking classes, are students living with local families? Are they taking field trips, doing internships or completing research projects abroad? How much do faculty (and not just study abroad administrators) work with students to help them determine their options for study abroad? You know that study abroad is really important when it's the professors who talk about it, not just the students and the administrators.

No matter where they may be located, colleges and universities that meet these criteria can provide a deeply international education. As our lives become more and more international, we need to educate individuals on the place that they have and how their actions can impact the world.