The Academics in Short-Term Education Abroad: Myth?

As we here at Seminars International are preparing for dozens of January term programs to depart, I m looking over itineraries and seeing anew all the exciting plans faculty have to bring alive their academic subjects through on-site experiences. And I m reminded of the old myth that short-term education abroad isn t a serious academic endeavor. I hope it s a fading myth but, in this climate of tight budgets, we still need to do all we can to showcase the education in education abroad.

Understandably, there are people outside higher education who hear student stories that selectively describe the fun they had and the amazing things they saw but unfortunately leave out what the professor was teaching them. And there continue to be those within the education abroad field who believe “true” study abroad must be long-term. And sometimes that myth carries weight within our institutions as well despite the fact that over 60% of study abroad is now short-term.

So it continues to be important to look on our own campuses and in our own offices to ask ourselves: Is there anything we might be doing that unintentionally downplays the academics of our short-term programs? Could we be helping to perpetuate the myth ourselves? Here are a few questions worth asking:

  • What language do we use to describe study abroad?
  • Do we talk about study abroad “trips” or “tours”, instead of “programs” and “courses”?
  • Do we laughingly describe planning site visits as junkets ?
  • Do promotional materials emphasize exotic destinations and photos of tourist sites?
  • Can students and faculty easily find an academic course description for short-term programs?
  • Are the on-site experiences clearly linked to course learning goals?
  • Are reading lists and assignments readily available?
  • Do your faculty-led courses fulfill major, minor, or other degree requirements?
  • Do you require grades to be given on short-term programs?
  • Do grades from short-term courses abroad count in the on-campus gpa?
  • Can students use their financial aid on education abroad programs?

The more study abroad courses resemble on-campus courses through policies as well as in the structure of programs the more seriously they will be taken.

Education abroad has always faced suspicions of being less-than-serious. We can bemoan it as I certainly do, after a couple of decades of watching providers and education abroad professionals work tirelessly to beef up academics and connect study abroad to on-campus curricula. But, at the same time, we have to look to our own work and programs to be sure we’re doing our part to help that old myth die a well-deserved death.

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