While many study abroad programs were undoubtedly canceled or postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, resuming these opportunities when it is safe to do so should be a high priority in higher education.
Participation in these programs has grown steadily over the past 25 years (Institute for International Education, 2020). According to the US Department of State (USA Study Abroad, n.d.), over 325,000 students participated in a study abroad program over the 2015–2016 academic year, a 4% increase over the 2014–2015 academic year. Trends indicate these numbers are continuing to increase: the Institute for International Education’s (IEE) Open Doors Report (2020) notes that over 347,000 students studied abroad during the 2018–2019 academic year, a 1.6% increase from the previous year.
With such a strong interest in study abroad, many universities and professional organizations participate in and promote engaging in such international opportunities. Study abroad offers exposure to diverse cultures, different perspectives, and new ideas and is usually offered in short-term (less than 8 weeks) and long-term (greater than 8 weeks) formats, each with a variety of learning options. Study abroad is not limited to education; many businesses find value in exploring and developing prospects in a growing global marketplace. Further, professional organizations are creating programs for international collaboration and training.
Receiving positive student feedback (Niehaus & Wegener, 2019), study abroad opportunities are a valuable addition to higher education. We will now look at the following five benefits these programs can add to your school: personal growth and skill development (Ruth et al., 2019), improved cultural learning and knowledge (Niehaus & Wegener, 2019), increased student satisfaction within their program of study (Di Maggio, 2019), increased student retention (Metzger, 2006), as well as professional and career development, which may also benefit faculty (Gose, 2018).
Benefit 1: Personal Growth and Development
Barkin (2018) notes that study abroad experiences are often described within the context of international travel as a prerequisite for the “internationalization” of university campuses, meaning that the development of a global mindset for scholarship is a primary objective. Thus, study abroad experiences provide exposure to diverse cultures and perspectives, thereby providing opportunities for participants to enhance their learning, especially related to cultural knowledge and competence (e.g., intercultural competency).
Blankvoort et al. (2019) suggest that while a one-time experience does not provide intercultural competency or demonstrate an “internationalised curriculum” (p. 366), even a short-term study abroad experience can play a significant role in participants’ personal development. An oft-claimed result of study abroad is personal transformation, and international study and learning provides experiences that are difficult or impossible to create in a classroom (Shannon, 2013).
Benefit 2: Cultural Learning and Knowledge
Perhaps one of the most frequently reported rationales for study abroad is the intention to further develop participants’ cultural learning and knowledge. Arguably, study abroad trips provide a ready-made means to expose participants to diverse cultural experiences: languages, cultural norms, foods, fashion, currencies, and so on. Further, meaningful impact occurs when participants are challenged, must reconcile differences, or are faced with difficult circumstances; these personal experiences are impossible to reproduce in a textbook or classroom – the “lived experience” is necessary to promote cultural learning. Still, traveling or learning internationally is not a transformative experience in itself; instead, a transformative cultural experience requires two elements: “meaningful intercultural mentoring and opportunities for reflection on meaning-making” (Vande Berg et al., 2012, p. 21) that connect study abroad to cultural intelligence.
Benefit 3: Student Satisfaction
Developing engaging and interactive study abroad is imperative to its success, and every experience should involve careful and intentional planning to promote self-reflection and introspection (Shannon, 2013). Participants appreciate these efforts, as they consistently report a high level of satisfaction with study abroad experiences (Vande Berg et al., 2012). Further, as noted by Di Maggio (2019), evidence demonstrates that students who study abroad have higher graduation rates than student who do not. In addition, Ruth et al.’s (2019) and Di Maggio’s (2019) research indicates students who study abroad report a higher level of satisfaction with their program of study. With the importance of student retention to universities, study abroad may provide a viable means by which to increase student satisfaction and increase graduation rates. According to Gose (2018), faculty also favorably view study abroad and also benefit from the experience.
Benefit 4: Student Retention
Retaining students and increasing enrollment are common concerns in higher education. As students may apply and seek educational opportunities at multiple institutions, universities seek new avenues to attract students; this may occur in a number of ways, such as providing up-to-date facilities, robust social media engagement, clear feedback and communication, and stimulating academic and professional programs, which includes study abroad opportunities. As noted by Metzger (2006), retention is complex and involves a large number of factors; thus, study abroad as a retention strategy is not a complete solution. However, when coupled with Di Maggio’s (2019) and Ruth et al.’s (2019) reports linking higher graduation rates and increased satisfaction with students participating in study abroad, it creates a compelling argument to explore how study abroad can benefit students, faculty, and the university.
Benefit 5: Professional and Career Development
While discussion of study abroad often focuses on the participants, those who develop and/or lead these trips may also benefit from them, both personally and professionally (Gose, 2018). Developing coursework and planning out study abroad experiences allow faculty to engage in scholarship and develop additional knowledge, skills, and competence (Niehaus & Wegener, 2019). Faculty are encouraged to share what they learn within their department; developing and leading study abroad encourages innovation and creativity, allowing intercultural experiences to serve as educational opportunities. Participants may also gain skills and knowledge that can translate into long-term professional benefits, such as becoming involved with and forming relationships within the global community.
Study abroad provides a variety of experiences and opportunities. Doerr (2019) notes that “every study abroad experience is different, even for the same person” (p. 9); thus, continued involvement in study abroad remains beneficial. Multiple benefits are noted for study abroad, both for the participants and those who develop and/or lead the trips. While careful planning and preparation is necessary when developing study abroad programs, international learning can provide a vital and innovative approach to education and curriculum development, as well as potentially increase student satisfaction, improve student retention, increase graduation rates, and provide opportunities for transformational growth and development. These benefits provide exciting reasons for universities to offer study abroad opportunities.
Barkin, G. (2018). Either here or there: Short-term study abroad and the discourse of going. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 49(3), 296-317. https://doi.org/10.1111/aeq.12248
Blankvoort, N., Kaelin, V. C., Poerbodipoero, S., & Guidetti, S. (2019). Higher education students’ experiences of a short-term international programme: Exploring cultural competency and professional development. Educational Research, 61(3), 356-370.
Di Maggio, L. M. (2019). The connection of study abroad to students’ positive feelings of institutional action. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory, & Practice, 21(3), 326-341. https://doi.org/10.1177/1521025117711127
Doerr, N. M. (2019). Transforming study abroad: A handbook. Berghahn Books.
Gose, B. (2018, October). Study abroad can benefit professors too. Chronicle of Higher Education, 65(8), B8, B10.
Institute of International Education. (2020). Open doors 2020 fast facts. https://opendoorsdata.org/fast_facts/fast-facts-2020/
Metzger, C. A. (2006). Study abroad programming: A 21st century retention strategy? College Student Affairs Journal, 25(2), 164-175.
Niehaus, E., & Wegener, A. (2019). What are we teaching abroad? Faculty goals for short-term study abroad courses. Innovative Higher Education, 44, 103-117. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10755-018-9450-2
Ruth, A., Brewis, A., Blasco, D., & Wutich, A. (2019). Long-term benefits of short-term research-integrated study abroad. Journal of Studies in International Education, 23(2), 265-280. https://doi.org/10.1177/1028315318786448
Shannon, M. R. (2013). Fly the coop: Benefits of and tips for successful study abroad. Nurse Educator, 38(2), 49-51. https://doi.org/10.1097/NNE.0b013e3182829773
USA Study Abroad, U.S. Department of State. (n.d.). Study abroad data. https://studyabroad.state.gov/value-study-abroad/study-abroad-data
U.S. Department of State. (n.d.). Why study abroad? https://studyabroad.state.gov/value-study-abroad/why-study-abroad
Vande Berg, M., Paige, R. M., & Lou, K. H. (2012). Student learning abroad: Paradigms and assumptions. In M. Vande Berg, R. M. Paige, & K. H. Lou (Eds.), Student learning abroad: What our students are learning, what they’re not, and what we can do about it (pp. 3-28). Stylus Publishing.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to David Brown, Department of Counselor Education and Supervision, Liberty University, 1971 University Boulevard, Lynchburg, VA 24515, United States. Email: [email protected]