Anthony Jewett is not your average study abroad participant. Born to a teenage mother in a Fort Myers, Fla., housing project, Jewett, an African-American, faced long odds of making it to college, let alone studying international business in Beijing. Black students represent 12% of American college students, but just 3% of the study abroad population.
Yet thanks to his community's charity and his own diligence in securing scholarships, Jewett, 26, who is fluent in four languages, was able to find funding to study in France, Costa Rica, Senegal, the Middle East and China before graduating from college. Like most students, Jewett's trips abroad combined classroom learning with volunteer and field work. The experiences stayed with him, and he has since gone on to found Bardoli Global, a non-profit organization devoted to increasing minority representation in study abroad.
"I didn't just go on trips. I went away. I learned a whole heck of a lot, and then I used that as leverage, and I got into roles where a lot of people like me aren't yet," says Jewett.
Although a record 206,000 students studied abroad in 2004-2005, the most recent year for which data is available, that figure represents just 1% of all people enrolled in higher education in the U.S. To augment those numbers, distribute them among more far-flung locales and have the demographics of study-abroad students match those of the overall college population, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill in June that would use federal dollars to create the Sen. Paul Simon Study Abroad Foundation. The foundation would help send one million students overseas annually by 2017. The unprecedented program is ambitious in its aims, but supporters say such goals are necessary in order to prime the next generation for the global security and economic challenges it will inherit.
The legislation, which sits before the Senate foreign relations committee with support from its chairman, Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), is a nod to Simon, a two-term senator from Illinois who died in 2003. Simon favored government intervention in social problems, including financial aid to increase study abroad. The independent foundation would award more than $80 million in grants a year to universities based on a school's willingness to eliminate the institutional barriers including curriculum requirements and financial aid transferability that, along with cost, hamper many students' plans to study abroad.
Advocates say the bill's significance goes well beyond giving more college kids the chance to sip a Foster's while peering out at the Sydney Opera House. Vic Johnson, the associate executive director for public policy at the Association of International Educators (NAFSA), believes the foundation is critical for the country's future. "We view this as first and foremost a measure that is good for the foreign policy, national security and international leadership in the United States long-term," says Johnson. That sentiment is echoed by Mary Dwyer, president of the Institute for the International Education of Students (IES) and Steve Trooboff, president of the Council on International Educational Exchange (IEE), the two study abroad professionals who served on the 17-member Lincoln Commission, an advisory group created by Congress in 2004 whose report is the blueprint for the prospective Simon foundation. "We are a very insular nation of people," says Trooboff. The recent debate in the U.S. over illegal immigration is a good example, he says. "What drives that argument ultimately is a fear of what's foreign."
Back in 2004, the 9/11 Commission Report recommended more support for scholarship and exchange programs. But the government received a 'D' in the Commission's 2005 follow-up report for lack of implementation. Combating global terrorism has additionally shown the acute need for increased international understanding, not to mention foreign language skills, according to the Iraq Study Group (ISG), which found that of the 1,000 employees at the American Embassy in Baghdad, just 33 spoke Arabic and only six fluently. As the ISG noted, this startling incapacity leaves the U.S. "often at a disadvantage."
The bill's supporters believe the foundation will give students the experiences and education to remain relevant in an increasingly interconnected world. Slowly but surely, students seem more willing to study in non-traditional destinations like developing countries. According to the Institute of International Education, Argentina, India, China and Brazil saw 30-50% increases in American students from 2003-2004 to 2004-2005; conversely, Germany, Ireland and Italy witnessed declines. The Simon foundation would aim at accelerating such change, and there's a big gap to fill; while almost all of the world's population growth over the next 50 years will take place outside of Europe, 6 in 10 U.S. students study there.
Some change may come naturally. The United Kingdom has been the most popular destination for Americans studying abroad, mostly because of its native language and relative proximity. But a proliferation of English-speaking programs in non-Anglophone countries have students reconsidering, as have the realizations that the U.K. is not necessarily safer or cheaper the British pound hit $2.04 earlier this year, the highest mark since 1981. "We never really went out for dinner because going out to eat was really expensive, so we would go to the supermarket and make our own food," says Kristen Samuelson, 20, a senior at Syracuse University who studied in London last semester. The experience was good, she says, "but it was costly."
Students' costs have been a concern for Goucher College, a small, private, liberal arts school in Baltimore. In 2005, the school announced that study abroad would be a graduation requirement, with the college providing $1,200 vouchers for each student. Since then, applications have risen at least 20% per year, says Eric Singer, the school's associate dean of international studies.
With just 1,350 undergrads, Goucher can afford to make that requirement; not every school can. The University of Delaware, which has 16,000 undergrads, has improved on the number of students who study abroad only a scant 113 signed up for 2005-2006 semester and yearlong programs by creating winter term trips. The five-week courses are designed to interfere less with graduation or extra-curricular obligations, but they are still expensive. The high-end options five weeks in Antarctica or an Argentina-Australia-Thailand-Ethiopia-Morocco extravaganza cost more for in-state students than an entire semester. The bill would provide more scholarships to study abroad, says Lesa Griffiths, the director of Delaware's Center for International Studies. "That would be wonderful for us."
Even if the foundation is created by Congress, it's no panacea, its supporters concede. Quality control of overseas programs is a concern, as is how universities would cope with an influx of interested students. Some experts worry that personal treatment on campus like one-on-one advising would suffer. "If you've got limited resources, these types of labor intensive efforts that need to happen are unlikely to occur," said Dwyer, of IES.
Nonetheless, the bill's supporters say its advantages far outweigh its downsides, especially with a funding structure designed to use federal money to leverage additional university and private sector resources. If everything comes together, says Johnson of NAFSA, the impact could be revolutionary. "As [the bill] is today, it would create an internationally literate society like nothing we've seen before."