At the University of Kentucky and far beyond, there is an overall increasing trend to participate in education abroad during both undergraduate and graduate studies. Education abroad, at my home institution, can encompass a variety of opportunities that transcend traditional study abroad experiences and range from student teaching, internships, and research conducted abroad. As an undergraduate nearing graduation and preparing for professional school, a student cannot deny the benefits obtained by being able to say he or she participated in an education abroad program. International experience and cultural immersion will undoubtedly set a student apart from competing résumés. The drama with education abroad arises, however, when students are asked to explain their experiences – particularly in interview or otherwise professional settings. Yes, you took a thousand pictures, climbed a waterfall in Costa Rica, and danced the night away in the Yucatan, but what did you do abroad that contributes to academic and professional goals?
Duration of education abroad programs, without question, influences how much true cultural immersion a given student can experience abroad. In conjunction with social media addictions that provide students opportunities to maintain heightened connections with home and the US, blog posts, quizzes, and other media in popular culture are continuously shaping the notion that education abroad programs are “party city”, a break from your real college education and academics, and an overall easy way to earn credits toward graduation. Sites such as Buzzfeed, the Huffington Post, and Elite Daily consistently issue quizzes and articles centered on education abroad or where you should have studied abroad based on arbitrary preferences that almost always include alcoholic beverages, food, celebrities, and animals. These quizzes are undoubtedly fun and a guilty pleasure, but they contribute to a mass of media that perpetuates negative American stereotypes regarding international travel.
If popular media about education abroad is overrun with content that discredits academic and professional components of experiences, how are students ever expected to choose a worthwhile program and, moreover, talk intelligently and eloquently about their experiences in such a way that they will stand out in interviews? I’m not trying to say stress-relieving media, quizzes, and articles should be done away with, rather, I believe that education abroad advisors, professionals, and program coordinators should play a more active role nationwide in recognizing a profound difference in travel and education abroad. Credits earned in courses abroad work toward degree completion for students studying internationally; this credit will appear on transcripts seen by employers and professional school acceptance committees. If students are ill-prepared to discuss their experiences with terms other than “amazing” and “awesome”, education abroad perpetually reflects the image of the ignorant and naïve American tourist whose goal is to collect t-shirts and photos from their destinations. In order to break this cycle, education abroad must continuously evolve as a professional field in which study abroad alumna should seek to work within to build credible institutions that craft worthwhile professional and academic experiences.
Post by Sarah Caton
Sarah Caton is an Education Abroad Peer Ambassador studying Spanish and Gender & Women’s Studies. She participated in the UK Partner SOL Costa Rica program.