Cross-cultural Connections and Exchange: international study is more important than ever

Photo Credit: U.S. Naval War College

Studying abroad has never been more vital for U.S. students.

In a week filled with tragic news across the world stage, that may seem like an odd sentiment. It’s understandable that people are facing fear and uncertainty about traveling internationally.

However, the benefits to individual students and our society as a whole are significant. The number of students studying internationally continues to increase each year, which is encouraging – but growth is slower for U.S. students than their peers.

On Monday, the Institute of International Education, a nonprofit, and the U.S. Department of State released new data from an annual study on students and international education. The number of international students coming to U.S. colleges and universities to study increased by 10 percent last year. We host more international students than any other country in the world – and the U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that they contribute significantly to our economy, to the tune of $30 billion in 2014 alone.

In contrast, the number of U.S. students studying abroad grew by only five percent in the most recently measured academic year, 2013-14. While this represents an increase, ultimately only 10 percent of all U.S. undergraduate students will study abroad before they graduate.

Why does it matter? Because, as Anne Murphy Paul summarized in Time last year, research increasingly shows that time spent studying or working abroad fosters “an ability to think more complexly and creatively—and you may be professionally more successful as a result.”

As a global society, we need those complex, creative, flexible thinkers more than ever. We need a workforce open to and understanding of different cultures. And, as a minority of ill-intentioned individuals and groups do their best to create divides, we need citizens equipped to create connections and build bridges.

Study abroad participation is rebounding from the recession, and many colleges and universities are taking steps to foster and promote new opportunities on their campuses. I’m extremely proud of my own alma mater, the College of William and Mary, which had the highest percentage of undergraduates participating in study abroad programs compared to any other public university in the United States – for the third year in a row. Almost 50 percent of W&M students participate in some form of study abroad experience. It’s a great start, but the push for growth continues.

Did you study abroad during college – or work abroad after? We’d love to hear about how it has impacted your career and professional skills in the comments.

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