Children in primary schools in the small New England town of Glastonbury in Connecticut have plenty of opportunity to learn about other countries.
When secondary-school students from abroad are hosted in the town, they are often taken to its primary schools to talk to pupils about their homes and cultures. If a teacher from a Glastonbury school travels to Spain, they might use Skype to communicate with their students. Meanwhile, pupils are often encouraged to correspond online with their counterparts in China about topics such as art.
According to Rita Oleksak, who oversees foreign languages across Glastonbury’s schools, it is because of these experiences that even “the youngest kids aspire to what they might do when they get to college. What I notice is a certain comfort level, a lower anxiety level” about international travel. “It whets their appetites for study abroad.”
Such strategies are about to be rolled out across the US in an Institute of International Education campaign, involving partners such as the British Council and half a dozen UK universities, which is designed to double the number of Americans spending part of their degree abroad.
“Far too few students enter college without the expectation to study abroad, and that’s what we’re trying to change,” said Daniel Obst, deputy vice-president for international partnerships in higher education at the IIE, a private not-for-profit organisation.
“What we want to make sure is that every student expects to study abroad as part of his or her college education,” adds Mr Obst.
Last year, 289,408 Americans studied abroad. In all, about 10 per cent of US students have an international experience during their time in higher education. The IIE campaign, called Generation Study Abroad, seeks to double that by the end of this decade – including by enlisting primary and secondary-school teachers to help inspire their students to eventually go overseas.
“Teachers are among the most powerful motivators,” Mr Obst said.
So far, 129 teachers have signed an IIE pledge to become involved with the target set at 1,000. In the US there are 3.7 million teachers who work in the nation’s primary and secondary schools, according to figures from the Department of Education.
Mr Obst said the 1,000 teachers’ goal was just the start. “It really does need to be in every school district, in every classroom,” he said.
IIE has produced maps, games, lesson plans, education materials, and interactive activities to help teachers instruct pupils about other languages and cultures, and it is also publishing a parent’s guide to study abroad. The guide is meant to inform American parents in their single-minded drive to gather as many credentials as possible for children facing the competitive university admissions process.
“Kids and parents are very careful and deliberate about the activities that they choose to help the student be successful at getting into college and successful in life,” Mr Obst said. “What we would like to see is study abroad becoming part of that. It’s a great distinguishing factor and a résumé-builder.”
As one way of inspiring enthusiasm in their students, teachers will be able to compete for grants to travel abroad themselves. Generation Study Abroad also encourages primary and secondary school teachers to invite alumni who have travelled abroad to return and describe it to students of all ages.
Many of the 500 partner institutions and organisations that have joined the push have a financial interest in expanding the number of tuition fee-paying Americans who come to their countries. Among them are more than 50 overseas universities, including Durham, Exeter, Kingston, Westminster, King’s College London, Sheffield, and Queen Mary University of London in the UK.
Some institutions have agreed to change their academic calendars to make it easier to welcome US students, Mr Obst said.