Shooting ourselves in the foot: managing expectations for study abroad

Students gaze at the eiffle tower,
is this what study abroad means to them?
Stacy West, Director of Partnerships at ACLAS, recently attended a fascinating session called “Perceptions and discourses of study abroad: What do promotional websites say?” at the Association for International Educators (NAFSA) Region 2 conference. This session inspired this post’s theme.

Many international educators, whether administrators, faculty directors or teachers, are often frustrated by our students’ apparent focus on visiting travel destinations rather than taking part in meaningful and challenging intercultural learning. We’ve all had chats with students who want to go to Barcelona for the beaches, or Costa Rica for the zip-lines.

These motivations are earnest enough, but they leave out what ends up being the real fun - the late nights with new friends and new food, the accomplishment of communicating effectively, the thrill of realizing something about yourself you’d never considered.

Learning about gravity on the Equator.
Photo credit: Julie Veltman. 
I recently attended a presentation at the NAFSA Region II Conference focused on just this issue - and more specifically, the imagery on study abroad websites. The presenters, Kristen Michelson and Jose A. Alvarez Valencia, both of the University of Arizona, have completed research on the “perceptions and discourses of study abroad” in the case of promotional websites. Their research showed us that there was a strong discourse of tourism and leisure a in the websites. Study abroad is portrayed as a”dream-like activity” and as a means to “explore.” The prospective study abroad students, naturally, fully engaged in this type of discourse in their own photos and blogging.

(I should say that this few-line summary of the presentation is almost offensive - the research was much more thorough and provides many other important findings. But, I will engage with this one element because I think this lesson can be applied to all forms of student engagement prior to experiences abroad.)

Celebrating a student's birthday.
I believe everyone in the room at that conference wants, as most of us in international education would, to better depict the true nature of the study abroad experience: the challenges, thrills, and profound learning that happens. But who can explain that in a brochure or on a website? Or in the 15 minutes that we have to promote our programs in a class? The problem grows when we are trying to reach students who may not immediately consider studying abroad as an option, or who see the immediate challenges of program cost or academic fit as too daunting.

Bottom line: The “sexyiness” of study abroad sells, and, as Michelson and Alvarez Valencia state, it’s reinforced by our students.

But there are things we can to do help the situation. Here are so

me tips I think could be starting points for more realistic expectations and better learning:
Serving others during a summer
study abroad program.

  • Find photos and videos that are still interesting, but depict learning. For example, on an excursion, ask a tour guide if photos can be taken with him/her talking with the students. Capture laughter in the classroom. Subtly take photos of a typical walk to and from class. Capture the moment students taste something new. I think all the photos in this post begin to capture this idea.
  • Ask students to depict the “other side of study abroad.” I believe they can easily recognize the difference between what is portrayed and their real experience, especially when confronted with the question.
  • Use the images captured above in your presentations and orientations, and explain their background.
  • Ask students who have studied abroad before to tell their stories in person. In my experience, their first words are not “We stood in front of the eiffel tower,” but, rather, something much deeper. It helps to ask good questions of the students.
  • Students help a family get going after
    visiting a historical landmark.
    Require some sort of journaling or blogging during the program and facilitate reflection and discussion.
  • Don’t shy away completely from the “touristy” photos - this is part of the experience and part of the learning and fun - but remember that they’re not fully representative.