Do you want to get an edge? Think about studying away

Andy Overman, Contributing Writer

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At this time of the semester some students are preparing to apply to study away. Others may be contemplating it, while still many, for a range of reasons, will not study away. Study abroad programs in the U.S. have been around long enough and have garnered enough attention and study for us to know quite a bit about the benefits of studying away and what a worthy investment it is.

In our Classical Mediterranean and Middle East department, we require study away and have seen its many benefits over the years. “The Institute for International Education” is one place you can go to access lots of data on study away.

Under two percent of students enrolled in higher education in the U.S. study abroad. If you do, or if you have studied abroad, you have already distinguished yourself from the vast majority of college grads. About 330,000 students study abroad each year. That number is growing at around 2.5 percent each year.

Nearly all the growth is in programs of short to medium length (two-eight weeks). January and summer programs are now the most popular study away options at U.S. institutions. Over 60 percent of all study away students participate in such programs. Just over 30 percent participate in semester long programs, down by five percent over the last decade.

Also, non-credit bearing programs, including volunteer and college-affiliated civic engagement work abroad are growing in popularity. There are other options to pursue if a semester away seems not to work for you. The largest disciplinary cohort of the study away population is in STEM fields. Next is business/marketing programs, (for example study away is required at the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Business), followed by social sciences and humanities.

Currently, 59 percent of Macalester students study abroad. According to one ranking that places us 25th among liberal arts colleges in the U.S. Nearby, Carleton, St. Olaf and St. Benedict are very highly ranked and are engaged in some innovative programs of their own.  So too is St. Thomas, but they are measured in another cohort.

If you are part of the 59 percent, you have or will study through a semester long program run through a different university. As the statistics above capture that model is changing in the U.S. as more schools develop and run their own programs. Increasingly, colleges are making study away a focus of capital campaigns in order to make study away more accessible and to develop better, more creative programs.

This is a recognition of the value of these international experiences for future generations. The recent 2019 volume “Integrating Worlds: How Off-Campus Study can Transform Undergraduate Education,” edited by S. Carpenter and H. Kaufman, is a very good starting point for thinking about a range of models for, and the future of, study away programs at colleges like Macalester.

You may not be aware of the advantage that study away gives you when it is time to enter the work force. The data is decisive. Students who study abroad find a job within 12 months of graduating — twice as fast as those who did not study away. Ninety percent get their first or second choices for grad schools. Sixty percent of the employers who hired a student who studied away say the person’s study away or international experience was key in selecting them for the job.

What is it about study away? So-called global competence is something organizations and employers search largely in vain to find. Study abroad is a demonstrable and genuine provider of global competence. Employers see a person who can take and manage risk in a student who has studied abroad, who can problem solve in foreign or unfamiliar settings, and a person who has had significant experiences in other cultures and parts of the world where few U.S. students have ever been. Study away is not just a great experience, it opens doors.

An even more significant reason to study away is the personal growth and change we know occurs during and long after study away. A recent University of Maryland study revealed the long-term personal growth and change these international educational experiences foster.

Study away alumni demonstrate greater social skills. They have increased maturity and confidence. They develop relationships with people from the host country and different settings which very often endure across decades. As we get further removed from our college years there is much about college we forget.

But good news for you who have already studied abroad: we know that study away is one of the experiences during your college education that you will not forget. Indeed, longitudinal studies have shown your study away experience continues to inform you. Many respondents say they think about their study away experience, the people or places, each week if not sometimes each day. And they continue to learn things from that experience often times after many years. In substantial ways, study away can be the educational and intellectual gift that keeps on giving long after you have returned.

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