Monday, June 20, 2011

How short can a study abroad program be?

As I was searching for my "Study Abroad Related Tweet of the Day" for an IHEC Blog Facebook Page post I came across the following tweet:

"Morning TwitterLand. Just back from a week long MBA studyabroad in Santiago, Chile"

In an effort to continue the field's debate on short-term study abroad programming I ask myself can one really study abroad for a week?  There are those in the field that say "yes" and there those in the field that say "no". 

This ties in to the my April 4th IHEC Blog post "The Study Abroad Credential" and discussion.

Can one study abroad for a day? 

A few years ago while advising a student on his Fulbright application he asked if he should list Myanmar down as a list of countries he had visited even though he had been there only three hours.  Fulbright applications are not really wanting applicants to list countries visited while on vacation (although there can be a significant learning component to vacations, no?) so this was a good discussion.  If he asked me if he should list a three hour visit/travel through the Principality of Liechtenstein I would have told him no.  But Myanmar is a bit different in my mind and spending three hours in the country would be quite an interesting/educational experience (and one that few others have experienced) so I told him to list Myanmar as a country visited. 

Did the Fulbrighter actually study abroad in Myanmar?  I don't think so.  Did the Fulbrighter have a meaningful educational experience in Myanmar?  I do think so.

Did the MBA student study abroad in Chile?  Perhaps there were classroom lectures and discussions but I would not call it study abroad if I had participated on this week long program.  Did the MBA student have an educational experience abroad in Chile?  Absolutely!

Just some random thoughts I have on a Monday morning.  What are your thoughts?

Photo credit: Chez Cåsver


  1. David, Thank you for this thoughtful post. I could (and maybe will!) write a book about all the reasons I believe even very short-term study abroad programs can and often do provide students with deep, substantive, and life-changing educational experiences.

    But, in brief, I believe that the potential for such learning, even with very very short exposure to a foreign culture is so powerful that none of us should look down on any of it, or attempt to deny its potential power. (I agree with you completely that the student who spent 3 hours in Myanmar may have had a meaningful educational experience, one worthy of note.)

    I think the quality and depth of the experience depends more on a variety of factors--the personality and receptiveness of the individual, the amount of preparation beforehand, the presence and quality of guidance by a thoughtful teacher or other individual, the amount of time given to research, reflection, and analysis during and after the experience, and also sometimes probably just plain serendipity--than on the length of time spent in a place.

    Having said that, the famous Mark Twain quote "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness" has always made me a little bit uncomfortable, since it is clear that for some people travel serves to do just the opposite--to seal prejudices, to increase bigotry, to send people scurrying back to the comfort of their home cultures, convinced that their own ways are the best ways.

    On the other end of the scale Mick VandeBerg, Michael Paige and Kris Lou just did an absolutely fascinating presentation in Vancouver (at NAFSA) about how and why some of the long-held assumptions in the field about the value of long-term study abroad programs for inspiring deep and substantive intercultural learning are just not true--and what we can do to design programs that will help students actually achieve such learning no matter how long, or how short, their time abroad.

    There is, as I said in the beginning, much more to say about this topic. I hope others will join in the conversation. Thank you for starting it!

  2. Very interesting! It may be true as well that that 3 days deeply immersed in a culture may hold its own against a 3 month stay in a country which doesn't involve much exposure to the local culture. It's about quality, and not quantity in some cases!

    Great post. Thanks :)

    Kate Rich

  3. Wow, interesting article and great blog. I'll be following from now on.

    While we're drawing lines in the sand, how do professionals like yourself view "study abroad" in a classrom versus "study abroad" with education components and earned academic credit due to field experience?

  4. You raise an important question. I tend to agree with Janet above - I think that it really depends on the person, their background, life experience, level of immersion, and so many other factors. A very short experience abroad often leads to a desire to return to dig deeper. I reflect on my time working at a community college that had a short London Wintersession. For many of those students, the experience was transformational and sparked a desire to study abroad (even in other locations.) It is a great question to raise and hope to hear others' thoughts too. (And I agree, an airport stop over is not study abroad!)

  5. My husband works for the University of Hull (UK) Business School and each May he takes a group of MBA students to a partner business school in France for a week for one of these very-short-term education abroad experiences.

    From what he tells me, the students get to participate in some really worthwhile activities and do get something out of it. So while it may seem that a week-long programme isn't enough time to be useful, perhaps that's not the case - it's what you (the students) do in that time that counts.

    Jessica Guiver

  6. Sudden fiction can make as big an impact as novels...perhaps more at times. I also think that very short experiences that provide insight and contrast can also. I still remember a 1974 afternoon spent in East Berlin... I learned more from that than I did some other much longer exposures. I think we often try too hard to define what is meaningful. Perhaps it is not ours to judge.

  7. It definitely depends on the background of the individual and the preceding levels of exposure and sensitivity for insight. However, from my experience I can say that having spent four hours in Anchorage (Alaska) and taken a short tour, I cannot say I know anything more than the surrounding nature and basic architecture. There is not enough time to even have a meaningful conversation with a local, and even then, it would only be one opinion!
    I have traveled quite a lot (not on tourism) and have discovered that the only way to actually get a glimpse of the country and its people is by "getting lost" in the back and hidden parts of the city / country, including local markets. A typical example of this would be Baku in Azerbaijan!
    As of short term education, besides exposure to local conditions, such as buildings and equipment, structured exposure to local students and faculty must also be an absolute requirement, even though we all carry stereotypes that influence our perceptions!
    We have been organizing two International educational programs for a number of years, that also focus on international cooperation, civil society building and networking (one for University students and one for teenagers). It has been proven that it takes at least four days of continuous interaction (almost on a 24 hour basis!) to break down the "barriers" and have them connect to the other cultures!
    This is an interesting discussion! Thank for starting it...

  8. I agree that a short visit somewhere can be as rich and meaningful as a long visit. Perhaps even more so. When we have a short time to visit someplace, we are more determined to get as much out of the visit as possible, where as if we have longer times we might put things off until we run out of time. Sometimes a 30 minute conversation with someone can be more of a learning experience than taking an entire class in a subject. In reference to the question, perhaps the person could include what he/she learned from his/her experience.

  9. I think spending 3 hours in a different country is beneficial. But how can one fully benefit from this, especially when it comes to "studying abroad". My question is what is an idea time range to get the full experience of life and learning in another country?

  10. I agree with the common theme that quality of travel experience holds more weight than just quantity, however I would have to question validity of offering course credit for a 2 week trip without some form of structured activity. My thought is there should be certain criteria to be met for anything to count for credit....or am I being to picky?