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Prepping Global Citizens

Is study abroad becoming a booming business in the United States?

November 28, 2002

Is study abroad becoming a booming business in the United States?

At times, the stairs leading to the Gelman Library at the George Washington University resemble a modern day Tower of Babel. The scene is a familiar one — groups of students gossiping among themselves and commiserating about workloads.

But if you listen closely you can overhear languages as diverse as Hindi, Spanish and Mandarin floating through the air.

According to the Institute of International Education (IIE), the number of international students attending colleges and universities in the United States reached a record-breaking 582,996 in 2001/2002.

This represents a 6.4% growth from the previous year — and matches the unprecedented growth seen in 2000/2001.

These students come primarily from Asian countries. China, India and Japan are traditionally the three biggest suppliers of students to the United States.

None of this should come as a shock to anyone who has spent any time on an academic quad. Indeed, international students have become as much a part of the collegiate landscape as all-nighters and fraternities.

But what is surprising about this story is the economic benefits for America. The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that international students contribute more than $12 billion to the U.S. economy annually.

These students pay for everything from tuition bills to the coffee that keeps them awake in the library. And they do so primarily with financial support from family and other personal sources back home.

This substantial inflow of cash makes higher education the country's fifth-largest service sector export item behind travel, transportation, financial services and commercial services.

Given the seductive allure of U.S. pop culture and the importance of learning English in order to participate fully in the global marketplace, these statistics will most likely continue to grow well into this century.

Though the number of Americans studying overseas has also grown by leaps and bounds — a 55% increase in the past five years — the United States still remains a net importer of college students.

In 2001-2002, 154,168 Americans studied beyond their borders — 63% of them in Europe and 15% in Latin America.

U.S. students go abroad for many of the same reasons as their international peers: to learn a foreign language, to gain work experience as an intern — and to contribute to the expansive tourism industries of exotic locales and exciting destinations.

Yet, the increased traffic of collegiate and university students represents more than merely an economic boon for the host countries. By studying abroad, students are exposed to a host of new political and cultural viewpoints that make them more informed — and more active — global citizens.

Prominent politicians on the world stage — such as Colombia's President Uribe and America's Bill Clinton — point to their time abroad as a formative period in their lives.

From this perspective, the close relationship of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair — as well as Colombia's cooperation with the United States in the War on Drugs — can be seen as a consequence of these earlier life experiences.

I spent my undergraduate years at Dickinson College and worked at the Office of Global Education after graduation. While there, I met countless students who returned home energized and excited by their travels. They were also equipped with a new perspective on international affairs.

Staid, academic debates on the Cold War take on a new life when students in the class have personal connections with friends — and host families — in Moscow.

Similarly, students have a keener sense of the benefits, as well as the costs, of globalization when they see how pervasive the Americanization of the world has become.

Many critics feared that the combined effect of the global economic slowdown and the fears raised by the War on Terrorism would slow — or even halt — the flows of students going abroad.

However, according to the IIE, professionals in the field of international education have indicated that interest has remained strong — and even increased — since September 11.

"This is welcome news — because we believe this is a time when our world needs more international exchange, not less. The terrorists wish to close our minds and our borders to the rest of the world. And we must make sure they do not succeed," stated Allan E. Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education.

The dramatic events of this past year have opened students' eyes to the importance of an active engagement with the world beyond U.S. borders.

U.S. policymakers should follow the example set by students — and reject the folly of isolationism in favor of a richer and more thoughtful interaction with the world.

The challenges which confront humanity in the 21st century — terrorism, environmental degradation and human rights — are transnational in scope. In short, they are beyond the capacities of any one state.

To combat them, we must strive to cultivate a sense of cosmopolitanism and cooperation. Studying abroad has become an important, grass-roots way of doing so.