World insight: building a study abroad programme that works

Trisha Craig on the changing face of study abroad programmes

December 27, 2016
Man holding globe in front of face

For me, study abroad conjures up images of smiling students at the Uffizi gallery in Florence learning about the treasures of Western art, or trekking along the Great Wall while studying the history of imperial China.

Beyond these Instagram-worthy moments, however, what are the real goals and benefits of study abroad programmes? The past century of student mobility shows that the answer is both multifaceted and linked to the broader aims of higher education. 

Larger cultural, economic and political forces shape the rationale and the demand for types of programmes. In the aftermath of the two world wars, developing cross-cultural understanding was the focus of many exchanges in the hope that it would lead to peace among nations, while during the Cold War, a security perspective led to increased spending on language programmes and study abroad.

The European Union’s Erasmus+ programme has its roots in the 1980s, and was created to foster greater integration across the continent. 

Language acquisition, cultural immersion and personal growth are still goals for study abroad programmes, but part of the case today for study abroad also stresses its role in preparing students for a globalised world and a tight labour market. Learning to operate in multicultural environments, gaining the international experience that employers may seek and developing professional networks are all objectives that may be promoted by such programmes.

Learning how to navigate a new culture and institution while abroad also allows students to develop coping and problem solving skills. 

It is clear that that an international experience has many long-lasting and critical benefits, but it is equally true that students today have a wide array of options beyond what we might traditionally think of as study abroad. In addition to term-time study, there are summer programmes, internships abroad, service learning trips, experiential learning opportunities and gap years between secondary school and university, to name a few. 

At Yale-NUS in Singapore, a term-time study abroad experience is the norm. Some 75 to 80 per cent of students spend a semester elsewhere. We encourage students not to see it as a one-off international opportunity, but rather to think about how it builds on previous activities and sets the stage to further develop skills and mastery. 

In bringing together staff from study abroad, career services, leadership training, graduate and professional school advising, fellowships and experiential learning, as a team the focus is on the cumulative value of the different programmes. We try to help students see connections between the various routes they have taken and to concentrate on deepening their knowledge and skills by building on their experiences.      

For example, a study abroad year at an institution renowned for its demography programme may be the culmination of a freshman project in Japan that leads to an interest in learning Japanese. That in turn might spark a curiosity about the country’s ageing population. As a follow-up, the student working with his adviser might consider the new skills acquired and discuss options such as pursuing a career in health policy with a focus on ageing, or taking up a summer internship doing market research or applying for a postgraduate fellowship.

Viewing study abroad in this light also influences how we build our nascent programme. The model we are developing is primarily an exchange one, which requires the cultivation of partners. We aim for global breadth so that students have choices around the world, and we hope eventually to have partners on six continents.

As we build those relationships, we look for institutions with strong academic rigour and, in many cases, sufficient familiarity with the liberal arts model. We aim to confirm that our students will do well there as visitors, and just as importantly that their students will thrive when they come to our campus.  

Academic faculty members are among our most important allies in building partnerships. We rely on their knowledge of the specific strengths of programmes and departments when seeking out potential partner institutions. Additionally, study abroad is linked to a larger institutional strategy of building strong global connections.

By bringing on institutions as partners where our faculty have research collaborations, we allow for the possibility of student research attachments while abroad, and, importantly, help to strengthen faculty networks and set the stage for the creation of new ones. 

Study abroad today is a popular as it has ever been, but for many students it is one of many options for gaining international experience. Thinking about the myriad goals it can help today’s students meet, from personal development to skills acquisition, as well as how it can bolster institutional strength and networks, confirms the central and strategic role that study abroad can play as institutions seek to internationalise.

Trisha Craig is dean for international and professional experience at Yale-NUS College, Singapore.

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