When classes start at local colleges and universities this month, more students than ever will have their sights set much farther than the urban campuses.
They might look toward spending part of their junior or senior year in Cyprus for a seminar on Arab and American Identities in Crisis. They might plan to go to a fringe theater festival in Scotland for credit. They could study at Sichuan University in Chengdu, China, or do an internship in Namibia.
At campuses across the country the number of students who spend at least part of their college education elsewhere is increasing.
The number of students studying internationally increased to more than 200,000 in the 2004 school year, more than double than a decade earlier, according to the Institute of International Education.
“Universities themselves have really begun to promote study abroad,” said Brian Coffey, director of international programs at the University of Washington Tacoma.
Washington colleges sent 4,545 students abroad in the 2004-05 school year, ranking it 17th among states, according to the Institute’s report. The University of Washington sent 1,586 students abroad, ranking it 13th in the nation among all colleges.
After students come back, “they’re more confident, they’re more aware, they’re more marketable,” Coffey said. “Employers like it.”
Studying abroad is different these days than it was when students’ parents went to Europe to read the classics their junior year.
“The very nature of these study-abroad programs is changing,” said UWT global honors program director Claudia Gorbman.
Students go overseas to do volunteer work and humanitarian efforts such as cleaning up village water systems, building schools and teaching people about nutrition. Most students still choose Europe, but more are going to developing nations, too.
Carly Absher, who’s married with a 3-year-old daughter, went to India for a month before her senior year to study nongovernmental organizations working in a big city with big social problems.
“Everything just shifts, the way you see the world,” said Absher, who graduated from UWT in June and lives near Puyallup. “I realized that poverty was extremely relative. You could maybe be living under a tarp, but if you have your family and you have love and you have food, then really you’re not in poverty.”
Part of what’s made it easier for students such as Absher to study somewhere else is that more short-term trips are available to them.
They’re cheaper and they don’t disrupt the academic schedule, Coffey said.
That’s good and bad, he said.
“Ten years ago, 15 percent spent an entire year. Now that’s fallen to 6 percent,” Coffey said. “And students who are spending less than two months abroad 10 years ago was 2 percent. Now, it’s 8 percent. I think that’s not necessarily a good thing.”
UWT’s honors program requires its students to go somewhere else to study. It could be for a year, but it might be for only a quarter or a few weeks.
The University of Puget Sound’s Jannie Meisberger, director of the school’s international programs, said she’s looking for ways to teach students to be global citizens.
“Intercultural competency means you learn how others think and live,” Meisberger said. “It’s not losing your identity. It’s understanding and appreciating values of other people. It’s understanding how they do things and why they do things and how that meshes with what you’re doing.”
Pacific Lutheran University ranked among the top 20 schools of its type for undergraduate study-abroad participation, sending 326 students – or 45 percent – according to the Institute of International Education.
After they’ve gone somewhere else, “if they read about an incident in southern Africa, they will realize that it’s happening to real people and not just some anonymous person who’s easier to ignore,” said Neal Sobania, executive director of the Wang Center for International Programs at PLU.
One reason not all students will study abroad is cost.
Whitney Rhodes said the semester she spent in Thailand cost more than $10,000 – the cost of the rest of her UWT education. She was lucky to have a family that could help her pay.
Rhodes, who’s now an urban gardens coordinator for the Pierce Conservation District, went to Thailand last year to study poverty, land resources and community action.
Absher paid for her $4,500 trip to India using a scholarship and financial aid.
Rhodes, who like Absher got a degree in interdisciplinary arts and sciences, said the effects of her travel to Thailand are still jelling.
“It’s changing when you first go through it,” she said. “But it’s months and years later when you see how deeply it affected you.”
TOP 10 DESTINATIONS
For U.S. Students Studying Abroad
1. United Kingdom
10. Costa Rica