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Educational travel: More college students go to study the world

Goucher College senior Laura Langberg has studied in Mali and South Africa. Goucher’s requirement that all students study abroad drew her to the school.

Laura Langberg chose to attend Goucher College in large part because of its requirement that all students study abroad. “It was a huge factor,” says Langberg, who grew up in California    While at Goucher, she has studied for a semester in Mali and gone on a three-week research trip to South Africa. “I didn’t know what I wanted to study,” she says, “but I knew I wanted to study abroad.”

Since the days when young men and women of privilege were sent to see the world before settling down with family and career, the idea of studying in another country for a portion of the college experience has had appeal. But today, the appeal is more widespread and far more students are studying overseas.

According to the Institute of International Education, the number of Americans studying abroad increased by 8 percent to almost 242,000 in the 2006-2007 academic year. That number represents a 150 percent jump from a decade earlier. In Maryland, more than 4,100 students took part in study abroad programs, up 1.1 percent from the previous year.

Goucher is the only institution in Maryland to require foreign study, but many others encourage it. Schools are offering more study-abroad programs, particularly in Asia, and are assuring students and their families that the experience need not be limited to the wealthy.

“I see an increased emphasis on it,” said Lisa Alton, coordinator of marketing and outreach for study abroad at the University of Maryland College Park. “The provost and president are strongly invested in increasing the number of University of Maryland students who study abroad.”

Increased globalization and connectedness, plus a president who lived abroad, are contributing to a growing sense that living and learning outside U.S. borders is an important part of a well-rounded education.

Goucher College was the first in the nation to require that all undergraduates study abroad at least once before graduation, a policy launched in the fall of 2006. “Goucher administrators feel that studying abroad will teach students more than they can learn by simply reading books or attending classes,” said Kristen Keener, a school spokeswoman.

Langberg, a senior who hopes to join the Peace Corps after she graduates, traveled to South Africa her sophomore year for a three-week research trip with a dozen other students and two professors.

Before the group boarded a plane, they worked together for a semester, learning and preparing for the journey. Each student was responsible for a research project. Langberg’s was on language barriers and HIV/AIDS treatment. She met with doctors and researchers who confirmed her hypothesis that “if you don’t speak English or Afrikaans, you’re not going to receive quality care,” she said.

The following academic year, Langberg studied for a semester in Mali, staying in a home there and learning about an art form called bogolan, a way of dyeing textiles using mud. “I’m personally really pleased with my experiences,” she said.

Petra Visscher, director of international affairs at the Maryland Institute College of Art, said about 40 MICA students are planning to study abroad in the spring semester. “There is an increase in interest,” she said. “I don’t even know of a school not having an international office. It’s pretty standard.”

MICA offers several programs, including exchange programs that swap both students and faculty, and others that simply allow students to enroll in overseas universities. Since MICA is an art school, it’s hardly surprising that a program in Florence, Italy, is the most popular, she said. In many cases, a semester in Florence is no more expensive than a semester in Baltimore, she pointed out.

The University of Maryland is also seeing increased enthusiasm for travel abroad and is offering more programs to meet the demand, including new ones this year in Haifa and Shanghai.

Alton said university officials recognize that study abroad gives students cross-cultural skills and experiences that they need to be competitive in an increasingly global world. She sees that students are profoundly changed by the experience.

“They all come back and can’t stop talking about it,” she said.

Karen Nitkin, Special to The Daily Record