Now, More Than Ever Before, College Students Need To Study Abroad

12/13/2016 01:33 pm ET Updated Aug 17, 2017

I am currently teaching a course on multicultural issues to undergraduate students at Saint Louis University. The election and now post-election climate has created a true sense of urgency around the topics we are discussing in this class. As I am advocating for the equality and inclusion of all people, my students are confronted with a different narrative on social media.

As we discuss issues such as systemic racism or the discrimination of Muslims, I realize that many of my students don’t have a counter narrative to the one that is offered through media outlets. So we read, and we have difficult discussions. I encourage them to interact with people who are different and to listen. But mostly, I just want them to travel because I know that once they immerse themselves in another culture, they will see the world in a different way.

The benefits gained from traveling are not new. The Council on Correlation of International Educational Enterprises, in their 1977 annual report, said, “Student exchange did not solve the world's problems, but it played a real role in creating a more world-minded outlook.”

It seems that most four-year institutions offer some sort of a study abroad program, but the actual number of students who seek out these opportunities is still quite low. In the 2014-2015 academic year, the number of students studying abroad grew 2.9 percent, but these 313,425 students only represent 1.5 percent of all U.S. college students.

I look at my students, and I realize their experiences haven’t been too different than my own. I grew up in a small town that lacked diversity. My family didn’t travel, and I would say that my upbringing, while lovely, was very insular. I learned a lot during those first years of college, but it was my first trip out of the country that really began to reshape my worldview.

The author’s daughter, Emma, in Morocco
Jen Roberts
The author’s daughter, Emma, in Morocco

I spoke with students who spent a semester abroad, and their experiences highlight the transformative role of travel.

Being immersed into a new culture for the first time isn’t always easy. One student shares that “I really appreciated the amount of uncomfortableness that I experienced; It pushed me to grow in ways that I wouldn’t have at home.”

Another student feels like she continues to make sense of her time abroad, “I’m still learning from this experience even though I’ve been back for almost a year now. It still seems like sometimes I’m there, like when things click. Sometimes things just make sense through that lens that would never have made sense without it.”

“It’s affected me in lots of small ways that continue to unfold–it’s made me think a lot about how I choose to live my life,” adds another student.

Many of the students felt that their experiences abroad created an awareness that they didn’t have previously.

One student, whose first flight was the one she took to South Africa, shares that she was often singled out for the “White American” experience in one of her classes. “I can’t imagine always being expected to speak on behalf of ‘my people,’ and I know that a lot of my friends say that’s their daily experience.”

Another student felt like she had a better understanding of poverty after spending a semester in Manila. She witnessed instances where community members couldn’t feed their family after having an unproductive week of work. “It was just more real than I expected. Probably more than I was ready for.” She pauses, “sometimes it did suck.”

“It was hard being an outsider wanting to be a part of the community,” adds one of the students. “It taught me a lot about being viewed as an outsider.”

While the students had vastly different experiences, they came back with an awareness that they make up a small part of this world, and they seemed to share a commitment in wanting to make their part of the world a little better.

After spending a semester in El Salvador, a senior who had also spent a gap year in India, felt that being a part of a community that was really engaged in social justice made her want to be involved in her own community. “I was aware that I have the power to go home and change my community–if they are in their community making change, then I need to be doing the same in mine,” she shares.

Another student echoes this commitment to social justice, “It definitely made me more vocal and passionate.” This renewed passion motivated her to create new organization on campus to address women empowerment issues. “My experience got me wanting to do more on campus. I wanted to be part of those types of conversations.”

One student started a water campaign after she returned to campus. Another credits her experience to helping her be more vocal in opposition of injustices. Spending a semester abroad made the students aware of their privilege in a way they hadn’t previously.

“I can’t feel guilty about how I was raised, but I also don’t need to ignore the fact that others have not had the same opportunities and resources that I did. So, I think about what I can do with this position of privilege and opportunity for the benefit of others,” she says.

“It’s changed my entire worldview,” she adds.

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Read more of Jen’s work here.

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