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Volume 10, No. 3 - April 2000
More in this Issue...


It cost Gustave Flaubert a year and a half, many miles on horseback, and a case of syphilis to make his grand tour of the Middle East. These days, St. Olaf College, in Northfield, Minnesota, has whittled the grand tour down to a long semester. The undergraduates cover political science in Turkey, sociology in Morocco, history in Egypt, religion in Israel, plus a final course taught by their American faculty leader--for $17,700 dollars and five academic credits.

The nineteenth century's great Wanderjahr may have gone up in a puff of smoke from one of Flaubert's Cairo hookahs, but for decades the spirit lived on in a poorer American cousin: the junior year abroad. Lately, however, this year of cultural immersion has been supplanted by shorter sojourns and exported American course work--auguring an era of cross-cultural contact that some experts complain is tailored to fit a professionally minded generation raised on Ritalin.

Enrollments for American students to study abroad have increased by a stunning 83 percent in the last ten years, but fewer than one in ten of these students now opts for the traditional year abroad. In fact, 90 percent of all undergraduates who study overseas go for one semester or less--often much less. Some schools, like Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, offer study-abroad programs confined to a January term that lasts only a month. Indiana University awards students three credits for a semester- long course on their home campus that culminates with twelve days of coral-reef snorkeling in the Cayman Islands.

One might wonder if these short stays and multidestination tours pack the educational wallop that study abroad is meant to provide. "I've heard study-abroad professionals refer to them as one form of vacation or another," says Clayton Hubbs, editor of the international-study and -work magazine Transitions Abroad. "It finally becomes a question of whether this is a study-abroad program or a tour."

According to the study-abroad historian William Hoffa, America's earliest foreign-study programs mostly belonged to small, private women's colleges, which were eager to aid their language majors. Before the war interrupted student travel in 1939, U.S.-organized programs sent only about two thousand students across the Atlantic to conjugate their verbs on Old World soil. After the war, however, the U.S. government encouraged student stints in the impoverished countries of Western Europe; the GI Bill even paid for study at the Sorbonne. Postwar soon gave way to Cold War: Exchange programs and foreign study brought students not only to NATO allies in Europe but also to modernizing Japan and even Soviet Russia.

In the wake of the Cold War, however, a new set of priorities lures students overseas: namely, a mandate to attain "global competence for work." Twice as many students now go abroad to study business and management as to study foreign languages. Says Hoffa, who lectured in Finland as a Fulbright scholar in 1974-1975, student exchange is "more selfish and nationalistic than it used to be. In the past, we were using it to understand each other on equal terms.... Now the focus is more preprofessional." For example, an Indiana University program for students of apparel merchandising takes them to Taiwan and China to see the factories that make the clothes they will someday market. Is such a journey an experiment in international living--or a chance for future bosses to survey their potential workers?

Defenders of today's version of study abroad say the new dispensation comes at the demand of students. Says Kathleen Sideli, current chair of the U.S. students-abroad section of NAFSA, an organization for international educators, "The students themselves are saying, why should I be a French major? How is it going to help me?"

But critics wonder if U.S. study-abroad programs should do more to combat such attitudes. Rather than requiring students to fend for themselves in a foreign language and an unfamiliar place, many college-based programs insert familiar faces between students and direct overseas experience. Some programs, like St. Olaf's "Hemingway in Cuba" course, send faculty overseas to teach American courses in romantic settings. More common are hybrid programs like Stanford in Oxford, in which Stanford students live together and take special courses from a mix of U.S. and Oxford faculty.

Money is undoubtedly a factor in the burgeoning of some in-house foreign-study programs. It is not uncommon for schools to charge their ordinary tuition fee for the international programs they sponsor, even though educating kids abroad can be cheap. As Hubbs points out, it is not hard to do the math: "If students go to Costa Rica, and pay fifteen thousand dollars for a semester, and are staying with families or in a dorm, the college is not going to be paying out fifteen thousand dollars."

What, then, of the benefits that accrue to these roving bands of American students as they make their swift passage through the great wide world? Sideli stresses that some travel is better than none. "We don't have enough research to compare the short-term student with the long-term student," she says. "I would want to compare them with the person who doesn't go at all."

Not everybody, it's true, is going to have Flaubert's experience on finally encountering the East: "I have found, clearly delineated, everything that was hazy in my mind." But could anyone enjoy such an epiphany in one academic term? Or three weeks?

Mark Greif

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