Studying in other countries has often seemed a privilege reserved for undergraduates—not busy, focused, and frequently overextended graduate students. But times are changing, experts say. “To be a competent professional and to be competitive today, you need international experience,” says Peggy Blumenthal, senior counselor to the president at the Institute of International Education (IIE) in New York City.
David Songco, 25, who attends the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, traveled to Belfast in May 2010 to study how conflict-ridden Northern Ireland has been affected by sustained trauma. “I found it very helpful to build personal relationships to get a cultural understanding” of the phenomenon, says Songco, a native of Monroe, Mich., whose program was sponsored by the school. Currently working on his doctorate in psychology, he says he found the classwork, field experience, and contacts he made invaluable, particularly since he plans to work in inner-city Chicago serving clients from diverse backgrounds.
Despite this growing appreciation of international experience, fewer than 31,000 U.S. graduate students received credit for study abroad in the 2008-09 academic year, according to IIE’s 2010 “Open Doors” report. This number particularly stands out, considering that approximately 280,000 foreign students attended graduate institutions in the United States during the same period. “U.S. graduate students may really be disadvantaged” by not capitalizing on programs offering a foreign experience, says Daniel Denecke, director of best practices for the Council of Graduate Schools in Washington, D.C.
Many institutions are trying to correct this imbalance. M. Brownell Anderson, senior director of educational affairs at the Association of American Medical Colleges in Washington, says nearly half of the nation’s 133 medical schools have some kind of study abroad option. Most of these run four weeks. In general, short programs work best for graduate students, who have heavy commitments and tend to be “very intensively focused on one topic,” says Erich Dietrich, assistant dean for academic and global programs at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development. Law schools are part of the trend, too .
NYU and other schools are trying to accommodate demanding student schedules with flexible offerings, including informal research exchanges, brief summer or inter-session trips, dual or joint degree programs, semester- and year-long programs, and internships. “The growth has been tremendous,” notes Dietrich. Five years ago, 280 master’s-level students studied abroad under the NYU programs; this year 600 will participate.
Many institutions, such as University of North Texas in Denton, provide faculty-led trips like the one Liliane Brockington took three summers ago to study French culture in Switzerland and Belgium at two universities. Brockington, 49, received six credits toward her master’s during the five-week program. She now teaches high school AP French in Austin. Getting a snapshot of native life was “absolutely valuable,” Brockington says. “When you teach a language, it’s more than just words and grammar, it’s also about teaching the culture.”
The appeal of joint or dual degrees is also catching on. Electrical and computer engineering student Christopher Valenta, 25, was drawn to the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta because the school would help him obtain two master’s degrees. The native of Wheaton, Ill., received the first from Georgia Tech in December 2010 and was to receive his second from the Polytechnic University of Turin in Italy this April.
“The U.S. degrees are powerful, but having that additional degree makes me a lot more competitive,” he says. Valenta also found time to intern with the Georgia Tech Research Institute in Athlone, Ireland, in the summer of 2009. He then spent the 2009-10 academic year at Polytechnic and worked on his thesis the following summer at the Technical University of Munich.
In a 2008 survey, the Council of Graduate Schools found that, among respondents, roughly one quarter of U.S. engineering programs, 15 percent of physical and social sciences programs, and less than 10 percent of humanities and life science programs partnered with international institutions to offer collaborative degrees, certificates, or other joint initiatives. Such relationships are less prevalent at the doctoral level, the group noted.
“The American academic community needs to embrace this,” says IIE’s Blumenthal, who contends that study abroad programs are essential if U.S. students are to remain competitive with their global peers. Among the biggest stumbling blocks, she says, are faculty members who count on the availability of graduate students to assist them with research.
To help address this problem, some institutions are encouraging faculty members to expand their own international experience through a variety of mechanisms, including Fulbright Scholar grants or campus-supported initiatives that promote collaborative research projects with colleagues abroad.
Another obstacle to broader participation is cost. However, students can find help to cover the expense of overseas study from a variety of sources, including the federally supported David L. Boren and Fulbright fellowships, as well as privately funded programs. Many of these can be found in the IIE’s directory at http://www.studyabroadfunding.org. Some U.S. schools even offer direct financial support.
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Some students may be wary of surmounting a language barrier, but those who have never learned a second tongue needn’t despair, Blumenthal says. Countries like France, Germany, and China, among others, actively recruit American graduate students and offer programs in English to attract them. Not only do the U.S. students provide a welcome source of revenue, they also add prestige to their host institutions.