Colleges Help Students to Translate the Benefits of Study Abroad

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Note: This article appears in The Chronicle of Higher Education and discusses the value of a study abroad experience if a student cannot articulate specifically the benefits he/she received from the experience.

By Ilana Kowarski

Clemson University administrators were troubled by what they discovered on YouTube in the summer of 2008. Students at the university had posted videos of themselves drinking and partying during their study abroad in Spain, and the videos had been widely circulated.

Many feared that the videos would wind up in the hands of employers and would hurt students’ chances of being hired. And the images certainly didn’t paint Clemson’s Office of International Affairs in a positive light.

“The video was so outrageous that I realized change was urgently necessary,” says Constancio K. Nakuma, a French professor and an associate dean in the humanities college.

In the spring semester of the following year, Mr. Nakuma sponsored a pilot program, Cultural Literacies Across Media, to encourage study-abroad students to be more thoughtful about their time in other countries. The course, which is now officially part of the Clemson curriculum, teaches students how to understand their international experience and present it to the world using multimedia.

“This program is an attempt to reveal what it is that people who did study abroad mean when they say, ‘Oh, wow, that totally transformed me,’” Mr. Nakuma says.

Helping students do that is a challenge many colleges face. It was a hot topic at the recent Forum on Education Abroad conference, in Charlotte. And recent research at Michigan State University indicates that colleges may be right to worry. The Collegiate Employment Research Institute there found that many employers did not value time spent abroad—in large part, because students couldn’t articulate its value.

As a former study-abroad student himself, Mr. Nakuma knows firsthand that international study can be a life-changing experience. And he’s learned how to talk about it. When he studied in France during his undergraduate days at a Ghanaian university, he was forced to adapt to the French language and culture. That, Mr. Nakuma says, clarified and deepened his way of thinking.

“With the mirror of the other, you begin to see yourself for who you are,” he says. “You begin to see yourself in the wider world.”

Colleges, Mr. Nakuma says, must find ways to make those kinds of personal transformations more palpable both to study-abroad students and to their prospective employers.
A Common Problem

Inge E. Steglitz, for one, is distressed by the thought that students are selling themselves short.

“I continue to be amazed by students’ inability to articulate what they’ve learned,” says Ms. Steglitz, assistant director of Michigan State’s Office of Study Abroad. “‘I can’t put it into words’ is not a convincing argument in a job interview.”

Research done by Michigan State in 2008 seems to back up her view. That year the employment institute issued a report stating that study abroad did not substantially increase a student’s chance of getting a job upon graduation. Because many students could not explain their international experiences in a compelling way, the report said, many employers did not highly value those experiences.

“Students have given very little thought to how their study abroad has shaped and prepared them for the world of work,” wrote Philip D. Gardner, director of the institute. “In other words, graduating seniors have flunked one of their most important exams—the hiring interview—because they were not prepared with appropriate examples of skills required from their international experiences.”

In response to the report, Michigan State developed a workshop to train study-abroad students in how to speak about their experiences, called Unpacking Your Study Abroad Experience.

During her “unpacking” sessions, Linda S. Gross, associate director of career services, interviews students about their studies overseas and attempts to glean what they learned that might be of value to an employer. At the end of each interview, Ms. Gross compiles a list of bullet points the student can use on his or her résumé.

According to Ms. Gross, that kind of retrospective reflection is essential for students to capitalize on their international experiences. “Study abroad doesn’t count to an employer unless the job candidate can say how it has made them a better person, scholar, citizen, and professional,” she says. “We need to think across the academy on how we can prompt reflection on study abroad so that students can make meaning of the experience for themselves.”
A New Approach

Many study-abroad students keep journals or participate in some form of a debriefing. But at Clemson, students document their international experience for public consumption. Students in the cultural-literacies course do not simply pontificate about what they have learned; they have to showcase their discoveries in online photos, blog posts, and documentaries.

Tharon W. Howard, a professor of English, and his graduate assistant require students to engage with citizens in their host countries to complete their projects. After lessons in how to interpret cultural symbols and understand people who are different from themselves, students venture into foreign communities with cameras and notepads to investigate social issues, cultural artifacts, and business practices.

Randy D. Nichols, Mr. Howard’s teaching assistant, says that exposure to a different culture will give students insight not only into alternative perspectives but also into their own identities. “Oftentimes our own cultures are invisible to us until we encounter other cultures,” he says. “The dominant culture names the other cultures, but it doesn’t name itself.”

For Mr. Howard, who also directs a multimedia center at Clemson, the multimedia focus of the program is one of its most exciting features. He says that by giving students new communication tools, he is also giving them new ways of understanding and interpreting the world.

“There’s that old adage that if you want to learn something, you teach it to somebody else,” he says. “That’s the underlying idea here.”

Through their blogs, students are linked not only to their professors and fellow students but also to the broader online community. And the interactivity built into the blogs allows students to have conversations with a wide range of people about their cultural discoveries.

The multimedia focus has also generated a great deal of student enthusiasm, says Mr. Nichols. “Before now, these students were consumers of Web sites, not producers,” he says, “but all of them will be working in the 21st-century workplace, and having these technological skills gives them a great sense of comfort.”
Learning and Giving Back

By creating blogs about their study-abroad experience, Clemson students are also contributing to a university collection of information on cultures around the world. In this way, Mr. Howard says, the students give back to the campus community that sent them abroad.

The cultural-literacies project covers an eclectic spectrum of subjects. For example, one student’s video project, “The Au Pair Diaries,” featured confessions of au pairs about what went on behind closed doors in the homes of families they worked for and also included details about their social lives. Another video focused on the way Belgian chocolate companies marketed their products.

Jennifer D. McAmis, a rising senior and public-policy major at Clemson, created a film analyzing Argentinian social movements through the lens of graffiti. At the beginning of her video, Ms. McAmis explained why she chose her subject matter. “Graffiti is an anonymous art form through which people feel free to express themselves even if their feelings are not accepted in the mainstream of politics or culture,” she says.

Ms. McAmis followed protesters and interviewed a former state prisoner named Jose, providing insight into the sources of unhappiness among working-class Argentinians and others in Argentina who want to change the status quo.

The records the students create of their experiences also serve as memory aids. Meg K. Sparkman, a 2010 graduate, says the videos she made in the course help her recall what she learned in Spain. Ms. Sparkman, a tourism and Spanish major, worked as a receptionist in a youth hostel and as an English tutor. The experience taught her, for example, how to adapt as a teacher to overcome language boundaries. When Ms. Sparkman realized that the Spanish she knew did not always suffice to tutor a small child, she provided educational cartoons.

When she returns to her blog, she is reminded both of the friends she made and the social phenomena she noticed, such as a political rift between traditional and modernist Spaniards.

“I will always have these videos, so I can go back in 10 years and look at them,” she says. “They definitely helped me put experiences into words that were hard to describe.”

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