University of Iowa

Study Abroad Sins

April 10th, 2016
Photo of Downing Thomas

The New York Times published a brief piece, entitled "Study Abroad's Seven Deadly Sins," in the Education Life section of the Sunday paper on April 10th.  The article is not inaccurate in the strictest sense; but the larger context is missing.  The author, a professor at the University of North Carolina, stokes the fires of parental alarm by listing seven evils of study abroad: slide courses, suds (beer), sexual fervidity (as if sex were absent from our home campuses), shopping, self-segregation, smartphoning, and selfie-taking.  

I'll give him slide courses and self-segregation.  Slide courses are courses that are designed to attract study abroad students to programs outside the U.S. because they are deliberately easy.  Though I cannot claim we have solved the problem, we try to identify programs that offer such courses and steer students away from them.  Self-segregation creates bubbles of Americans abroad -- not a good thing at all if one believes the experience of difference is a crucial component of any study abroad program.  At Iowa, we are also struggling with this issue on our home campus, as U.S. students and international students alike find it all too easy to keep to themselves.  

But on the other points, I'm not convinced.  In terms of actual danger to students (admittedly, not the author's point), the data nationally show that things go awry much more often on our campuses right here in the U.S. than at study abroad sites.  More to the author's points, Iowa data show that students who study abroad are 25 percent more likely to graduate in four years than the general population of undergraduates.  Hardly slackers, students who study (or intern, or volunteer) abroad are, on the whole, not students who let suds or sex get in the way of graduation.  On the issue of smartphones, smart faculty will be increasingly harnessing technology, including portable devices like smartphones, to enhance the educational opportunities of study abroad.  It's not as if faculty do not bemoan smartphone overuse in our Iowa classrooms.  

In short, the article preys on the fears of parents: oh, that credit card bill!; sex with god-knows-who!  It comes up short in giving an accurate context of the values of study abroad, which have been detailed in recent research both here and in Europe.