International education: The who, where, why and how

Study abroad. Every college student has heard this term at least one time or another, whether it’s from a plot device in a coming-of-age drama or from firsthand experience.

For some, the idea of studying abroad invokes the image of a 20-year-old college girl sipping wine on the balcony of a villa in Madrid, or your lame cousin Jeff who spent a term in London and now talks with a British accent.

For others, the idea of studying abroad seems an opportunity where you can challenge yourself, see outside the perspectives of your home country and spend time getting to understand a different culture. Thankfully, this was my experience going abroad and, aside from language immersion, was the primary factor in my decision to spend some time studying outside the United States.

I just spent two months studying at St. Petersburg State University in the Russian Federation and have been back in the states for two months. While my time there was short, I can already say that my experience in Russia was probably one of the most important periods of my undergraduate career.

Upon my return to the United States, I was completely bewildered by my experience. I was amazed at how two months seemed to not only change me, but solidified who I am as a student of language and a human being.

Sharing my experiences with people, I began to think a lot about the students who study abroad. Who they are, where they go and why. What are the practical benefits to studying outside the country? If I could do it again, what would I do differently?

According to the Institute of International Education, only 1 percent of U.S. students study abroad during the course of the academic year. In total, only 14 percent of all U.S. undergraduates have had the chance to study in another country.

In comparison, the European Commission estimates that about 10 percent of European students study abroad throughout the academic year.

Such numbers, while they could be higher, are probably the reason for the benefits of studying abroad.

A survey conducted by the Institute for the International Education of Students found that, on average, their alumni earn more in starting salaries compared to other U.S. college graduates.

Aside from this, 97 percent of alumni surveyed said they found a job one year after graduation, and 90 percent got into their first or second choice of graduate school.

Students returning home from international experiences not only get a boost in employment opportunities, but their academics also tend to improve following their return. A study conducted by the University System of Georgia found that students who studied abroad saw their GPAs rise twice as quickly when compared to students who did not.

So where are these undergraduates heading to learn such valuable life skills? While I know countless students who have spent time in Russia and other former Soviet Republics, only 1,562 U.S. undergrads studied in Russia during the 2012–13 academic year, about 0.0054 percent of all people who studied abroad during that period.

The most popular destinations in the 2012–13 academic year, according to IES, were the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, France, China, Germany, Costa Rica, Australia, Ireland and Japan.

Students tend to study for a portion of the academic year. In the past few academic years, roughly 37 percent of students abroad studied during the summer and 35 percent for a semester. Interestingly enough, longer periods of study, such as a full academic or calendar year, are in decline. In 2000, over 7 percent of students went for a full academic year, and in 2013 only 3.2 percent went for that long.

STEM, social science and business majors study abroad more than any other students. This trend was pretty common between 2000 and 2013, but the number of STEM students who study abroad has been steadily climbing, and they were the most represented field during the 2012–13 academic year. I was surprised to see foreign language majors only made up 4.5 percent of people who studied abroad during the 2012–13 academic year.

Thankfully, the choice of academic field is not a determining factor in a student’s opportunity to study abroad, nor does it mean that a student studying math is less able than someone from a humanities background.

In fact, I think people of all backgrounds should have the chance to spend some concrete time outside the country. Along with opening up opportunities to different academic fields, students from low economic backgrounds have more access to these opportunities thanks to countless scholarships.

One of these scholarships is the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship, which is available to any student who receives the Pell Grant and who has been accepted to an accredited study abroad program.

The scholarship program was founded in 2001 by the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State and was named after retired congressman Benjamin A. Gilman, a supporter of study-abroad opportunities. So far this program offers scholarships for study in 144 countries and is active in 1,124 institutions in the U.S.

The application process includes writing essays, working with your school’s study abroad and financial aid departments, and doing a return service project after the completion of the study abroad program if awarded the scholarship. While there are countless other ways to fund study abroad, such as the Boren Scholarship, financial aid and domestic scholarships, the Gilman is one of the more accessible scholarships for underrepresented groups in higher education.

In 2014–15, 42 percent of the students awarded the scholarship were first-generation college students, and 82 percent were the first people in their family to study abroad. During the same period, Gilman offered more African American, Hispanic and Asian students scholarships to study abroad than any other scholarship program. Besides recipients being more diverse, 71 percent of recipients went to a country outside of Western Europe, and 69 percent studied a critical language.

While I do have a bias toward the Gilman after being a recipient of the scholarship, I encourage anyone who meets the qualifications to look into this scholarship, as well as many others out there.

Many study abroad programs offer program-based scholarships. Crowdfunding is also a possible idea.

With that said, if you are reading this and think you might be interested in studying abroad, I encourage you to meet with our study abroad advisers here at Portland State in the Education Abroad Office. Planning ahead is essential to any time spent abroad.

At the end of the day, the only thing that could have improved my experience would have been more effective budgeting and planning ahead.

Studying abroad carries with it such a wealth of knowledge and experience one cannot get here in the United States. The benefits are not only confined to some abstract notion of education and “finding oneself”there are visible and quantifiable benefits to studying abroad. International education is a most worthy investment.

In an ever globalized economy, cultural competency and international experience are awesome skills to put on a resume.

Besides, if you don’t have at least one story about that one time you got drunk with people in a foreign country, you’re truly missing out.