US students set sights beyond Europe

Asia, India and Middle East are becoming study-abroad destinations of choice, reports Jon Marcus

November 17, 2011

Credit: Getty
A real song and dance: China, increasingly favoured as a study destination by Americans, makes some financial aid available

Ian Weller got more than he bargained for when he decided last year to take time off from Drake University in the US and study abroad, not in London or Dublin, but in Egypt.

A third-year student used to life in the Midwestern state of Iowa, Mr Weller merely wanted to practise his Arabic for an intended career in the US Navy.

But he ended up in Cairo during the Arab Spring and spent a lot of time photographing the protests with his Egyptian friends.

"I've seen things that scare my parents half to death," said Mr Weller, who is studying international relations. "But being able to see this part of the world under these circumstances, as an outsider, that was cool. This will be a chapter in the textbooks that come out."

The number of Americans who, like Mr Weller, are choosing to study abroad in unconventional destinations such as Egypt, India and China is rising dramatically, according to a report released this week by the Institute of International Education, while interest in traditional destinations such as Western Europe is comparatively flat.

"A lot of us poke fun at people who go to London or Ireland or New Zealand," Mr Weller said. "I know that a lot of that has academic merit. But for political science, to really get experience it's nice to have something where they speak a different language and where things are really happening."

The UK, Italy, Spain and France remain the top four host destinations, according to the report, Open Doors, which covers the academic year 2009-10 - the most recent period for which data are available.

But the number of students going to Europe rose only 2 per cent year on year, compared with an overall 5 per cent increase in the number of Americans studying abroad. In the past 10 years, Europe's share of the US student market has fallen from 62 per cent to 54 per cent.

"It's globalisation, and people are realising that relationships have to be built everywhere," said Allan Goodman, the institute's president.

China has roared into fifth place, playing host to 14,000 US students, compared with fewer than 3,000 a decade ago. Fifteen of the top 25 destinations are now outside Western Europe; among them are India (up 44 per cent), Brazil and Egypt.

The number of US students heading to Africa, Asia and the Middle East rose by more than 8 per cent.

"Students are intrigued by the Middle East. They want to see for themselves what's happening there," said Joanna Holvey-Bowles, executive vice-president of the Institute for Study Abroad at Butler University. "They realise that they need to understand the context of the world they're competing in."

That was Charlotte Ashford's motivation when she left Rhodes College, Memphis in the Southern state of Tennessee to study in Shanghai. "Everything you see every day is focusing on this part of the world," said Ms Ashford, another international relations student. "Europe and the West in general are becoming less and less relevant in terms of politics and finance."

Cost may also be affecting decisions about studying abroad, and nations such as China are offering financial aid while European universities grow more expensive.

"Students are concerned about cost, but they're also concerned about value," Ms Holvey-Bowles said, "not only, what am I getting for my money, but, how will this help me in the future?"

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