Send more American students to study abroad

Credit: Goucher College

Given the increasing interdependence of nations and complexity of America’s role in an interconnected world, it’s more important than ever for the American populace to be informed about international affairs and foreign cultures. Voters also highly value diplomacy and global engagement over a unilateral, America-alone approach, with 82 percent agreeing that the United States should “work with major allies and through international organizations” as a general matter of foreign policy.

Against that backdrop, some experts are warning of worrisome signs that Americans aren’t as equipped to deal with world affairs as we must be in this new age. Sanford Ungar, a former president of Goucher College, explains why that gap in knowledge and interest is so problematic:

One might have expected a shift in recent decades, if only out of a national desire to avoid repeating critical mistakes. … Today, incredibly, the situation seems worse. Thirteen and a half years after the shock of Sept. 11, a complex international environment feels ever more distant, unknowable and strange.

It is no wonder, then, that Americans find themselves easily and frequently bewildered by phenomena that spin quickly out of control — the various ongoing crises in the Middle East; the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, among other former Soviet republics; the spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa; China’s recent public showdown with dissidents in Hong Kong and quieter ones in other regions; the catastrophic symptoms of climate change; and separatist movements in Scotland and Catalonia, to name a few. A basic lack of awareness and understanding among the public makes it even harder for policy makers to formulate positions that will attract widespread domestic support and perhaps influence the outcomes.

The solution? One idea that Ungar implemented at Goucher College is a well-regarded requirement of all undergraduate students to spend some time studying overseas. That new policy of international exploration has been a successful, popular hit:

In 2001, when I became president of Goucher College, in Baltimore, about a third of the college’s undergraduates were already studying abroad, some in traditional semester- or year-long programs and others in intensive short-term courses led by Goucher faculty and staff members. It was easy to see that the participants returned with new ideas, stronger personalities, and a better sense of who they were as individuals and as Americans.

They described transformative adventures that allowed them to see their own country, with all its strengths and weaknesses, more clearly. They spoke of things they had observed and experienced abroad that the United States might be able to learn from: the ways that other societies organized urban housing and transportation for the poor, conducted immunization and literacy campaigns, made cultural events accessible to a broad audience, and—one of the most frequently mentioned—honored and cared for older generations.

Within a few years, after some gut-wrenching internal deliberations, Goucher made study abroad mandatory for undergraduates, provided a stipend to make it more affordable for all, and turned its little corner of the world alongside the Baltimore Beltway into a laboratory for international exploration. Enrollments grew, horizons broadened, and opportunities beckoned.

In order to foster student exchange programs at other colleges and universities across the country, he now proposes for the federal government to step in:

Luckily, there exists a disarmingly simple way to help address this problem and to produce future generations of Americans who will know more and care more about the rest of the world: massively increase the number of U.S. college and university students who go abroad for some part of their education and bring home essential knowledge and new perspectives.

The federal government should pass ambitious legislation, akin in scope and impact to the transformative National Defense Education Act (NDEA) of 1958, that would directly fund more study-abroad opportunities and create incentives for colleges and universities to put them in place and for students to pursue them.

For more information, see “Quotable: Sanford Ungar on expanding Study Abroad programs,” Public Diplomacy Council (2016); “The Study-Abroad Solution: How to Open the American Mind,” Foreign Affairs (2016); “American Ignorance,” Inside Higher Ed (2015); and “Taking a Chance on Change: Universal Study Abroad at a Small Liberal-Arts College,” Trusteeship Magazine (2015).