Friday, June 27, 2014

Study Abroad--Y Not?

Last week, I went to a two-day orientation at the college my youngest will be attending in the fall.  Of course everyone was subjected to a deluge of information, most of which we're still numbly paging or scrolling through.  (Meal plan decision when? And they register for courses--how many courses again?)

But I particularly perked up when they came to the study abroad presentation.  Impressive.  So many opportunities and ways to make study abroad happen for all students. So much enthusiasm on the part of the staff.  And such a big change from a generation ago, when I (for one) had to make arrangements for a year abroad on my own, because there was no Study Abroad Office at my college.

The number of US students studying abroad has tripled in the last twenty years.  So now everyone goes abroad sometime during college, right?

No, not quite everyone.

Y should I study abroad? 
Anyone who's worked with college students realizes (and struggles to overcome) the many remaining barriers to study abroad for students--lack of funding, unfamiliarity with travel, the challenge of majors (particularly STEM) that require specific courses at specific times, the feeling that "people like me (minority, LGBT, first generation college, with disabilities, low income) just don't study abroad." 

I understand how those barriers can seem insurmountable, and I've worked with colleagues in the ongoing project to eliminate them. But one underrepresented group puzzles me.



Male students fall far behind female students in study abroad by a wide margin.  Even given the fact that there are more women in college than men (about 7%), the numbers are still shocking.  According to a study by the Institute of International Education, in 2011-12 the breakdown by gender across the US for students studying abroad was 65% female and 35% male. That's almost a 2 to 1 ratio. And in some colleges and universities, the difference is much greater.

Is it genetic?  Does that Y chromosome mean "Y should I study abroad?"  

Okay, that's just silly.  But the gap may indeed have something to do with how young men perceive gender identity.  If study abroad is (mostly) associated with female students, especially those in the humanities, male students may (falsely) determine that it's not for them. They fall into the "people like me just don't study abroad" fallacy.  And they lose out.

But there's hope. The University at Texas at Austin is examining how messaging about study abroad can better acknowledge what male students value in education.  Duke University is determined to involve more male students in study abroad by offering more international opportunities in engineering and the sciences, disciplines that include a larger percentage of men, and working on recruiting for foreign language studies, which is a strong predictor for study abroad.

These are good strategies, and a good start.  If we believe that study abroad is a valuable, life-changing experience, then we should make sure that all students can see that "people like me study abroad."

Y not, guys?

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