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Why Study Abroad?

"Why Study Abroad?"

By Janet Dynak

As colleges and universities consider new study-abroad opportunities for their students or revise current opportunities, complex issues about the educational benefits, financial impact, and safety of students need to be addressed. The justification for working through these issues and offering study-abroad experiences stems from research findings where students report long-term changes in their views about learning and how to integrate knowledge from various disciplines.

Personal narratives provide a glimpse into how students reflect on their experiences studying abroad. I interviewed two students who participated in a May Term study-abroad experience at Westminster College. This program is presently geared to full-time fall/spring students who choose to earn four additional credits during May. No tuition is charged for these four credits, but students cover expenses for travel and lodging based on the budget of the trip they are interested in.

Jane Nelson is preparing to be a teacher of elementary school students. This past May she went to China on a May Term trip. She focused her coursework on Chinese women studies and Chinese women in education. Nelson reports that the time she spent in the dorms of college students in China really changed her way of thinking about education for women in China. To her surprise, there were lots of female college students. Nelson was able to see the amount of time that they studied and how important test scores were to their career plans. Many of the college students spoke some English and wanted to practice with her. However, outside of the college environment, Nelson struggled to communicate in a country where the written and spoken symbol system is so very different.

A few days into the trip, she thought about a reading methods course that she had recently completed at Westminster. She realized that, like the young children she would be teaching to read, she needed a practical way to make meaning from text. She bought a Chinese children's book in a grocery store and began looking for symbols that matched pictures and signs along the street. By the time she left China, she had learned a few symbols that helped her with sightseeing on her own. Even though Nelson did a great deal of reading from the reading list provided before the trip, it was the first-hand experiences that changed her thinking about women in China. In addition, she found ways to connect her learning of a new language to her future role as a teacher of young children.

In contrast, LeAnn Versluis is preparing to be a secondary teacher of math and Spanish, and her May Term trip took her to Mexico. Before the trip, her main goal was to increase her Spanish speaking abilities. After taking a couple years of college Spanish, she wanted to practice her conversational skills to help her teach Spanish to high school students. While Versluis reports that it was "awesome" to use her skills to chat with people on the street and spontaneously respond to someone who asked her a question, she came back with an understanding of Mexican life that whet her appetite for visits to other countries in Central and South America.

One of the main purposes of this trip was to have students stay and meet with families who are working at the grassroots level to develop their small community outside of Cuernavaca. Versluis's experiences hearing these people talk about their political, economic, and social efforts to make changes based on their needs, and seeing them in action at community meetings or in their daily work changed her views of how she will teach about Mexico. In addition, she better understands that learning about the subject matter she will teach is a lifelong process. She wants to learn through more travel that is not just "vacationing" and from the recent immigrant high school students she has in the classes she teaches.

These two students, like many others, are sold on the value of study-abroad experiences. The challenges for colleges and universities to provide this form of experiential education are great; but, if nurtured, the conceptual growth can be long-lasting.

Janet Dynak is the dean of the School of Education.