Studying Abroad: Is It Really Worth It? College students are often urged to take advantage of the opportunity to study abroad. Mark Salisbury, of Augustana College in Illinois, argues that meaningful cross-cultural education doesn't always happen.

Studying Abroad: Is It Really Worth It?

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In our increasingly interconnected world and global economy, it makes more sense than ever for students to take advantage of opportunities to study abroad. Cross-cultural experiences are enriching. But how well are study abroad programs working? Those students who do travel overseas tend to be white. They also are disproportionately female. And immersion in a foreign culture can mean different things. Students have a wide variety of experiences.

Our next guest, Mark Salisbury, has been researching study abroad programs for years. He worries that the real benefits of studying abroad are sometimes lost on students. Some of them, it seems, are just looking for a vacation. Mark joins us in a moment. What's your experience? If you studied abroad, tell us. What would you do differently if you had to do it all over again? Call us at 800-989-8255. Email us at You can also join the conversation via our website, Mark Salisbury is the director of Institutional Research and Assessment at Augustana College, and he joins us by phone from Chicago. Welcome, Mark.

MARK SALISBURY: Thanks for having me. How are you?

GJELTEN: I'm good. Thanks. So I think that, you know, as we say, study abroad programs have been around for years and years and years, and we kind of take for granted that that's - it's a great idea. It's worth establishing. In the best-case scenario, what do students get out of going abroad?

SALISBURY: Well, I think the best case scenario is definitely something that happens, and for those students, it's hard to put into words and they, oftentimes, have a hard time putting into words how it affects them. Many times it really opens their eyes to a whole another way of thinking about the world that we live in and how their actions and their interactions with people from other cultures really have an effect on the world that we live in. And it shapes the way, oftentimes, that you see that it shapes the way that they think about their own schooling when they come back to a university. Many times it reshapes the way they think about their own career plan, and they take a more reflective turn on the role that they're going to play in the world as it relates to their career plans. And oftentimes, you talk to people who studied abroad 50 years ago, and they will tell you that that was the most powerful experience that they had.

GJELTEN: Is there any way, Mark, to actually measure the impact that these programs have? You've laid out some of the things that, theoretically, should happen when students study abroad. To what extent can we say whether they do happen or not in a kind of a systematic way?

SALISBURY: Well, there are some good ways to measure the effect of studying abroad. Some of those are more by using survey data and then analyzing that data, sort of the stereotypical social science approach. Another way is that what is becoming more popular is this notion of students developing a portfolio while they're abroad. They do some journaling. They do some sort of reflective writing. And there are some ways of assessing that writing and seeing the change over time and to sort of have some sense of this is what we were going for with this experience, and then provide some guiding - reflective questions or ways that students can think about that and sort of challenging them as they write and giving them feedback. And so you can then see how that student's thinking evolves over their experience. So there are several different ways that people have used to assess it. Unfortunately, those are probably more the rarity than they are the norm.

GJELTEN: And you wrote a column on study abroad in The Chronicle of Higher Education. You called it We're Muddying the Message on Study Abroad. Is it your sense, Mark, that we are too quick to assume that these are great programs, we take them for granted, that we are not asking enough questions, tough enough questions about whether study abroad programs are really effective doing the things we expect them to do?

SALISBURY: I think that there is some of that. I think that, you know, as you said, study abroad has a long history. And I remember my mother telling about getting on a ship in Montreal and going across to the great museums of Europe and looking at artwork in person that they couldn't see in the States, and that that was sort of the stereotype of study abroad that we have. And now, things have changed quite a bit, and so there's a need to be more precise and get a sense of how this is happening.

But what I think happened was, is that once we in higher educations start recognize its potential value, it became very much about, let's see if we can increase participation. And the effort to increase participation was based on a - an assumption that participation automatically guaranteed learning. And what we're finding now is that when you increase participation dramatically and start adding programs of all kinds to try to get more students to do it and don't really think carefully about the learning that supposed to happen as a result of these programs, that there are cases in which the learning really has gotten lost and that the learning isn't as well defined and sort of articulated in the design as it could be.

And students have a host of experiences in college. And oftentimes, there are some experiences that sort of stick out for them. But there are an awful lot of experiences that just sort of fade into the background, and it's just a part of their larger college story, if you will.

GJELTEN: Did you go abroad when you were a student, Mark?

SALISBURY: I did not. I did not. I had to work, and I needed to do other things to pay for school. And so those things affected the ability for me to be able to study abroad.

GJELTEN: And they still do. I'm sure you mentioned participation, but we also pointed out that this is a - the students that do go abroad are disproportionately white, and I presume sort of - therefore, minority students, probably it's not as easy for them. Many of them come from lower-income backgrounds. It's not - for less-prosperous students, it's less of a viable option.

SALISBURY: This is a sticky problem in study abroad and a sticky problem for higher education, generally. Study abroad is expensive. And it came be more so or less so, depending upon how it's designed and depending upon sort of resources that the institutions have to supplement the cost. And some the research that I've done has looked the sort of patterns of - that predict participation and sort of - and guide students or prevent students from studying abroad.

And there's a whole series of things that shape students' decisions about whether an experience is a possibility for them. And if students begin with a presumption that, well, study abroad is for elite kids who have more money, and I'm just not one of those, they write off that possibility early. And then actually making it so becomes more and more difficult because you have to find a way to make the study abroad fit into a curriculum. And you have to find a way to make it fit into your other obligations, if you will. And you don't want to make it so that you have to pay a whole another year's worth of tuition just to study abroad.

GJELTEN: Well, a lot of our listeners have studied abroad, and we're hearing from them. Dan writes us in an email: Through Northeastern University, I did two short-term study abroad programs, one in China and one in Armenia. If I could go back, the only think I'd do differently would be to network more with peers I met in these nations and travel solo after the end of the program.

And I want to go now to Sanoon(ph), who's calling us from Portland, Oregon. Sanoon has also traveled abroad, studied abroad. Sanoon, welcome to the TALK OF THE NATION.

SANOON: Hi. Thanks for having me today. I feel the same way about the networking (unintelligible) is a really good word. I wish I would have spent less time out partying. I was only 16, and I graduated from high school in this country early and got a Rotary scholarship. My parents were lower-middle class, blue-collar workers that hadn't graduated from - from college, and one even not even from high school. And so we barely scraped by sending me abroad with Rotary.

And I wish I would have had more money to take little classes, like maybe some music or more things that would get in touch with people that were maybe of the same class that I was, because, well, I was in a situation there where I was in houses with 10 servants in one case, and another one with a doctor. And definitely living with that doctor did change my career plans after spending half a year living with them. So a lot of things you're talking about today did speak to my situation and my experience.

GJELTEN: But you said quite honestly at the beginning, Sanoon, that you did spend probably too much time partying and not enough time learning.

SANOON: Way too much time partying. I was 16 years old, and I was so enamored with this high life...

GJELTEN: Really?

SANOON: ...of Mercedes and, you know, Chanel. And in Mexico, if you're 16 - and this is in 1992. You know, if you're 16 and you're a girl and you're white, you get into all of these high-class clubs. And you - actually, you even get to meet famous people. It's pretty - it can really sweep you off your feet at 16. And I wish I would have spent more time just talking to people that go to work every day and struggle to meet ends. I did that as I got older, but I wish I would have taken more time to make those connections as a child.

GJELTEN: Well, thanks for sharing that experience with us, Sanoon. And a couple of other listeners say similar things. Samantha writes us to say she studied in Spain a few years ago, quote, "with a bunch of other American students. If I did it again, I'd go to a school with locals, or at least a school that had students from other countries besides the U.S. It was basically like going to school in the U.S., except that in the schedule - the schedule was a little different. I wanted more of a culture experience."

And Tucker says: He spent a semester in Aix en Provence in Southern France in his junior in college. He went to an American school. And he says if he could do it again, he would have studied at a French university. I made a lot of great friends and learned to speak the language, but I don't think I fully immersed myself because I spent a lot of my - most of my free time with other Americans.

It turns out, Mark, that this - Mark Salisbury, that this is actually, apparently a common phenomenon in study abroad programs.

SALISBURY: Well, it's an interesting - and you pointed out, this is an interesting issue that - and I think it is a function of how study abroad has evolved over time or not evolved over time as the intended outcomes of higher education have changed. So study abroad, it used to be about learning foreign language and learning some content knowledge, the sort of parlance of higher education.

And now it's supposed to be about developing a skill set, and one of those being cross-cultural communication skills. Well, the only way that you do that is really through experiential learning and getting out and meeting people.

And so programs that are designed to really ensure that students have those experiences, sure enough, they're more likely to have that kind of an effect. The students get the chances to interact with people. And then if the program really has designed some aspects of where there's an opportunity to talk about those interactions and have conversations and really, you know, push students outside of their comfort zone, that's where you can really start to see some of the kind of learning that we'd like to see from - for all students that study abroad.

GJELTEN: Well, Mark Salisbury is the director of Institutional Research and Assessment at Augustana College. And he pays a lot of attention to study abroad programs, which is what we're talking about here today. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And I want to go now to Cathy(ph), who's on the line from Kansas City, Kansas. Good afternoon, Cathy. Thanks for calling TALK OF THE NATION.

CATHY: Good afternoon. Thanks for having me on.

GJELTEN: You bet. So...

CATHY: So I...

GJELTEN: ...did you study abroad?

CATHY: I did study abroad between high school and college in Ecuador, and I loved it. The best thing I got out of the program was a command of the Spanish language, which was what my goal when I went down there. Probably, however, what I would do differently this time, were I to do it again, would be to not go down as a strict vegetarian and expect that my wishes would be, you know, granted.

GJELTEN: You have to be a little more open-minded about what you eat, I guess, when you're abroad.

CATHY: Oh, you do. And it's so offensive to refuse things, and I didn't really understand that at 18 and 19, and it caused a lot of consternation. So definitely do that differently.

GJELTEN: Well, thank you very much, Cathy. Let's go now to an email from Courtney(ph) in Berkeley. She says she studied abroad last summer in Hong Kong. She says it was the best experience of her life. The only thing she wanted to change - or would have changed was to stay longer. A semester or a year would have been a more immersive experience. She complimented the trip with volunteering in Vietnam and China. Studying and volunteering was a way of living in the different cultures that I couldn't imagine I could have experienced in just touring or traveling for the sake of traveling.

So, Mark, Courtney is someone who really did take advantage of being abroad as much as she possibly could have.

SALISBURY: Yeah, Tom, that's a really good question and a good point, and it's a discussion point in the world of study abroad. And one of the efforts - one of the results of the efforts to increase participation is to create a whole slew of different types of study abroad programs, some of which are much shorter than a semester or even a year, which was the sort of the standard a long time ago. And the criticism has been, well, it's so short. How can you possibly get anything out of it?


SALISBURY: And interestingly, there are some short-term programs in which that criticism is entirely valid, and there are some short-term programs in which that criticism is maybe less valid. But one of the things that your listener mentioned was that she then, from that experience, went on to other experiences, and it sort of inspired her to want to explore more and to learn more. And I'm sure that the totality of that experience was pretty powerful.

GJELTEN: Mark, do...

SALISBURY: So short-term can have an effect on maybe inspiring a student to think more deeply and then explore other programs.

GJELTEN: Do students generally get academic credit when they go abroad?

SALISBURY: Generally, that's the way a study abroad sort of meets muster as study abroad. There are more programs now, though, that are including some opportunities to volunteer over a summer. And maybe the student doesn't get academic credit for it, but in some ways, those programs are awfully effective if the goal is these kinds of cross-cultural outcomes.

GJELTEN: Well, we're getting to the end of the program, but I want to give a quick chance to Vincent, who's on the line from Charlotte, North Carolina. Hello, Vincent.

VINCENT: Hello. How are you, guys?

GJELTEN: Good. What's your experience?

VINCENT: Well, I studied abroad in Egypt, in Cairo, at the American University in Cairo. And I finished my semester 20 days before the uprising, actually. So the one thing I would do differently would be to talk to more of the locals. And the way we did it in Egypt was to talk to taxi drivers, because no one can hear. You're in the safety of the taxi car. And had I talked to more locals, I would have foreseen the uprising sooner. I could feel with the tension and with the dissatisfied citizens that it was going to happen, but I didn't expect it to happen so soon after leaving.

GJELTEN: Of course, a lot of young Egyptians speak English, don't they, Vincent?

VINCENT: Oh, yes. Yes, yes, yes.

GJELTEN: Mm-hmm. Well, expecting students to sort of pick up on trends, political trends that escape even intelligence analysts might be asking too much. But I'm sure, Mark, that students come away from these experiences with a much better insight into what's going on in those countries.

You know, Mark, I'm going to have to cut short our conversation here. Mark Salisbury heads Institutional Research and Assessment at Augustana College. His forthcoming book is "Renewing the Promise, Refining the Purpose: Study Abroad in a New Global Century." He joins us - he joined us today from Chicago. Thanks very much for coming on TALK OF THE NATION, Mark.

SALISBURY: Thanks for having me. I enjoyed it.

GJELTEN: Yeah, good. Well, tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. And the subject tomorrow, a cosmologist's chat on dark matter, the Higgs and the multiverse. And those of you who follow SCIENCE FRIDAY know what he's talking about. I'm not sure I do. But this is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Tom Gjelten, in Washington.

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