Lessons learned while studying abroad leave a lasting impact
On the crowded streets of Temple Lane in Dublin, Ireland, not far from the River Liffey, Alexzandria Siprian, her friends, and about 70 strangers were having a dance party. The night was clear, the air was sweet, and buskers played on for the rapt and joyful crowd. It was life-changing for the then-UTA junior, who never would have experienced the moment if not for a decision she made several years prior: No matter what, she would study abroad while earning her undergraduate degree.
While Siprian’s destination was Seville, Spain, she saw more of Europe than she ever thought possible.
“Part of studying abroad anywhere in Europe is that you are very close to tons of countries with completely different cultures,” she says. “And there are so many sights to see and beautiful people to encounter, with all different perspectives on life.”
Location wasn’t the only reason Siprian was able to enjoy spontaneous dancing in Dublin’s streets. Earlier that evening, she and her friends decided they would accept every opportunity (within reason) presented to them.
“I’ve experienced cultures from a handful of countries,” she says. “All of that newness just makes it easier for me now to approach things with an open and accepting mind.”
Openness to new experiences and ways of thinking, along with dexterous communication skills, are key to the idea of cultural competence, a quality employers seek in college graduates. In a recent MetLife survey of Fortune 1000 companies, 65 percent termed global awareness “very important” or “essential” for career readiness.
In a nutshell, cultural competence enables individuals to interact effectively with people of different cultures and backgrounds. While UTA and other universities offer a diverse landscape, nothing compares to the training received when students immerse themselves in a foreign culture.
“We can almost guarantee that at some point, students will interact with someone who comes from a different cultural background. Having an international experience and developing a truly global perspective will benefit them not only in terms of earning their degrees, but after graduation as well,” says Kelli Anderson, director of UTA’s study abroad program. “By living and studying abroad, whether for a few weeks or several months, students gain or improve tangible skills that can make them more marketable to potential employers or graduate programs.”
For Devin Nguyen, a UTA student who traveled to Cuernavaca, Mexico, and studied Spanish for a month, the broadened perspective was much more personal. Four days into his trip, he took the first step toward achieving a goal he had since high school: applying to work for the Peace Corps. (He subsequently was accepted and began two years of service in Ethiopia last summer.)
“Living abroad made me addicted to living an adventurous life,” he says. “I got a taste of independence and a stark realization that traveling was something I could see myself doing long term.”
Studies show that studying abroad can have a lasting impact on one’s personal, professional, and academic life. In an Institute for the International Education of Students survey, 87 percent of respondents said study abroad influenced their later educational experiences. Sixty-four percent said it impacted their decision to attend graduate school, and nearly half engaged in international work or volunteerism after studying abroad. Nearly 75 percent said they acquired skills that influenced their career paths.
“The benefits to opening yourself to new cultures are undeniable,” Anderson says. “Whenever I or others in the office talk with students about studying abroad, what we most want them to know is that it is possible. Not only should Mavericks study abroad, Mavericks absolutely can and do.”
UTA sends about 250 students abroad each academic year, and the University’s Office of International Education is working to increase that number. UTA is a partner with Generation Study Abroad, an Institute of International Education initiative that seeks to double the number of U.S. students who study abroad by the end of the decade. In the past year, UTA has seen a 30 percent increase in study abroad participants in exchange and affiliated programs and a 32 percent rise in advising visits.
Students can choose from more than 500 program options in 62 countries. In the 2014-15 academic year, Spain, Mexico, Italy, France, and China were the most popular UTA destinations. Many programs involve experiential components such as internships and service learning. The University offers internship/service programs in 18 countries, and students can make individual arrangements in several others.
Recently, a group of civil engineering students traveled to Valencia, Spain, with Professor Nur Yazdani to work with Spanish mentors on improving disaster response and recovery. The cohort researched nondestructive testing and wireless monitoring for seismic risk reduction, worker fall protection from temporary construction, and fire resistance of building elements.
“The hope is that students will maintain collaboration with Spanish mentors and research there so they get a global perspective of engineering and an idea of how mitigation is done in other parts of the world,”
Dr. Yazdani says. “That makes them more marketable to the industry once they graduate.”
The University offers about 10 of these faculty-led programs each year. Other options include reciprocal exchange, where UTA and partner universities swap students for a semester, and affiliated programs, where students enroll in universities abroad and take courses there.
“We want studying abroad to be an integrated part of the UTA student experience, where students take the lessons they’ve learned here and put them into practice in an international context,” Anderson says. “When they return, they return with new ideas to incorporate back on campus and in their future.”
INCREASING INTERNATIONAL REACH
In 2012-13 about 280,000 U.S. students participated in study abroad programs. While the number seems impressive, it’s only 9 percent of the country’s total college student population. For the United States to stay a global leader, experts agree it’s essential to increase access to cultural learning experiences.
“Study abroad is one of the best ways to provide students with the foreign language and cross-cultural skills necessary to compete and thrive in today’s global economy,” Marlene M. Johnson, executive director and CEO of the National Association of International Educators, writes on the organization’s website. “International experiences not only prepare students to succeed in careers, but also to collectively strengthen our cultural diplomacy, national security, and the economy.”
“By living and studying abroad, whether for a few weeks or several months, students gain or improve tangible skills that can make them more marketable to potential employers.”
While initiatives like Generation Study Abroad are boosting enrollment numbers, it’s equally important for universities to remove barriers to study abroad experiences. The Institute of International Education targets the “three Cs” that make it harder for students to study abroad: cost, curriculum, and culture.
UTA is doing its part. Students participating in a reciprocal exchange, affiliate, or faculty-led program are eligible for the same financial aid they would receive if they were studying on campus. The study abroad office also submits budgets for all programs to the Office of Financial Aid on the student’s behalf and provides scholarship workshops every semester. Over the last year, the University charted a 50 percent increase in students receiving nationally competitive scholarships for study abroad, such as the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship and the Fund for Education Abroad Scholarships.
Siprian, whose resources were limited, benefited from financial aid and a fundraiser to cover her living expenses overseas.
“I don’t come from a background of financial stability, which made it difficult to do much traveling,” she says. “In a personal way, it was an experience that kind of reassured me that I can do anything I set my mind to. I went from depending on my small-town community for things like food and shoes to traveling Europe, which is crazy!”
All UTA students participating in study abroad programs earn resident credit. They remain enrolled at the University, enabling them to continue their degree progress. They also can earn credit toward their major, minor, or elective hours.
Alex Quyen Vo, a math major and aspiring teacher, attended Yamagata University in Japan last year. She not only fulfilled course requirements but also learned to apply Japanese structure to her working knowledge of how a classroom should operate.
“My Japanese professors were very professional and formal in their style of teaching,” she says. “Their lesson plans were well-structured, and they were extremely patient in teaching me the basics of the language. I know what I learned from them will be with me through my teaching.”
No matter the destination or duration of an international experience, outcomes for study abroad alumni are impressive. According to IES Abroad, 97 percent find employment within 12 months of graduation, compared to 49 percent of non-study abroad students. Study abroad alumni out-earn their peers by 25 percent and are accepted to their first or second choice of graduate schools at a 90 percent rate.
Siprian, who graduated from UTA in 2014, took a job in Cehegín, Spain, as a North American language and culture assistant in elementary schools soon after receiving her degree. She can attest to both the personal and professional benefits of study abroad.
“It opens a part of you and sparks this new way of thinking. When you return to the states, you’ll just continue to grow in that way,” she says. “It also looks great on a résumé!”
She’s what Allan Goodman, president and CEO of the Institute of International Education, calls the fourth “C” of study abroad: a champion. Champions support study abroad programs across the nation, whether they’re faculty members who facilitate applications and financial aid or alumni who teach others through their own experiences.
“I personally believe study abroad is something every single person should do in order to be a truly well-rounded individual,” Siprian says. “It’s about expanding your horizons, learning things in a way that you can only learn by being there, and taking your perspective on life and creating things you never would have otherwise. It’s completely catalytic.”