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COMMENTARY: Rutgers' study abroad access must be democratized

Two weeks ago in the Student Activities Center, the Rutgers University Student Assembly invited a speaker from the Center for Global Education (CGE) — part of the University’s Centers for Global Advancement and International Affairs — to give a presentation on study abroad opportunities for undergraduates. The presentation focused on the need to increase participation among Rutgers undergraduates in all forms of international education: study abroad, research and service learning.

“How many undergraduate students at Rutgers do you think study abroad?," asked Gregory Spear, a senior program coordinator at CGE, who advises primarily for global service learning programs, to begin his presentation. After fielding guesses ranging from 5 to 30 percent, Mr. Spear revealed the answer — just 2 percent of undergraduates study abroad on credit-bearing programs by the time they graduate from Rutgers.

Why is that number so low? Time spent abroad, whether short-term cultural immersion or extended semester and year-long exchange programs, has been linked to a number of tangible benefits. Academically it is often considered a form of high-impact learning, associated with stronger learning outcomes and greater retention. It has also been shown to advance many college graduates in their careers. Research by language school AmeriSpan found that “two-thirds (67 percent) of HR executives surveyed said that a study abroad experience within a culturally diverse student environment distinguishes a job candidate from others studying only with students from their own country.” In today’s globalized job market, recruiters are looking for attributes that study abroad has been shown to develop. In fact when I was doing my first round interview with Prudential Financial about a year ago, the recruiter said to me, “One of the reasons that we called you in today was because you had study abroad experience on your resume.” Not only did I get the internship at Prudential last summer, but I am going back this upcoming summer.

Spear went on to discuss two important barriers that prevent many students from studying abroad. The first is financial: The costs of international travel can put such opportunities out of the reach of many students. While the CGE provides detailed advising on financial planning and there are plenty of scholarships available to Rutgers students, the reality is that far too many students see studying abroad as beyond their means.

The second is academic: Many students, particularly in the STEM and professional fields, feel that studying abroad would delay the completion of their degrees. While this is changing, the CGE offers an increasing number of programs for students majoring in health sciences, engineering and business. It remains a barrier for majors that don’t have enough study abroad opportunities integrated into the curricula of their school or department.

How can these barriers be addressed? Obviously it is unreasonable to assume that every student will be able to (or even want to) consider study abroad. But even for those that eagerly seek international experience, the way is not always clear. Spear explained several new initiatives being explored by the GAIA Centers to make study abroad more accessible, regardless of a student’s major, socioeconomic status or second language proficiency. These initiatives include offering new kinds of short-term summer and winter programming (including credit-bearing experiences built right into spring and fall semester courses), as well as incentivizing schools and departments to internationalize their own curricula through highly integrated study abroad programs that fulfill specific major requirements for students and training academic and financial aid advisors to cover basic questions about planning for study abroad.

While these steps are slowly opening study abroad to a wider population of students, there is more to be done. What can Rutgers students do to ensure that they are getting the same opportunities to study abroad? Does your school offer opportunities for study abroad within your major? Has your student organization invited the Center for Global Education to speak about academic and financial planning? How are our tuition dollars used to either support or disincentivize the proliferation of study abroad opportunities on our campus?

It is clear that globalization is here to stay and students preparing to graduate in the 21st century must be equipped to navigate a highly interconnected and interdependent world. Despite this growing need, only 10 percent of U.S. students study abroad at some point in their undergraduate careers, and Rutgers falls well short of even that figure. Rather than accept this lack of opportunity and access, Rutgers students should ask what their university can do better to ensure these experiences are available and accessible to more of its students.

Henggao Cai is a Rutgers Business School junior majoring in business analytics and information technology.


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