Dr. Bob Spires is Associate Professor of Graduate Education at the University of Richmond’s School of Professional and Continuing Studies. His research includes a focus on international grassroots NGOs using education to address social issues. Dr. Spires’ has led international student trips to Southeast Asia, mentored students in international field research and conducted field work in Cambodia, Thailand, Hong Kong, India and Uganda.
The benefits of travel and study abroad in higher education have long been lauded. The actual academic benefits, though are often, presented as generic catch-phrases like ‘see the world’ or ‘gain an appreciation for another culture’. Disconnections also remain between what is presented on a study abroad brochure, and the actual experience of students during their study abroad experience. The COVID-19 Pandemic gave us examples of college students the world over spending their semesters trapped in their dormitories, taking classes from their international professors and with their classmates online. Students were unable to explore the cities and countries in which they were located. The COVID-19 Pandemic gave pause to universities who wished to ensure quality travel experiences for university students and maximize the learning benefits of these experiences. The situation begged the question, “what are some of the more powerful learning benefits of travel for university students?”
In the broadest sense, life-long benefits of navigating another culture and setting, even within one’s own country cannot be denied. However, international travel is a privilege to which not every university student has access. Knowing these broad benefits, universities are beginning to take more innovative approaches to provide students whose life circumstances create barriers to international travel with flexible and affordable options to travel abroad during their studies.
At my institution, the University of Richmond, Encompass Program targets student athletes, minority students, first generation university students and other demographics underrepresented in study abroad programs. Encompass pairs a spring semester course on campus with a short-term trip in the summer semester. The travel cost is provided by the university and gives students who may be limited by income or time limitations to experience international travel explicitly connected to academic content and objectives.
Explicitly connecting academic content and objectives to international travel is key to making sure students can contextualize their travel experiences in a scholarly manner. While tourist travel serves a purpose, international travel as a university student should be about more than just sightseeing and taking courses at another university. Tourism oriented travel emphasizes a consumer-based purpose of the travel, focusing on trying new foods, shopping for goods and experiencing the services known in the particular locale. Travel for academic purposes should have a distinctly different approach emphasizing engagement rather than consumerism, and this distinction is sometimes missing from academically-focused university student international travel. Having student groups led by tour guides and sequestered on tour busses for an entire travel experience is likely to miss key opportunities to add nuance to students’ perspectives and possibly even reinforce stereotypes and assumptions about the very places in which they are traveling.
One should not assume that traveling to a new place automatically gives students a broadened perspective, more empathy towards their hosts, or a clearer understanding of the complexity of a context. These goals must be proactively curated for students and explicitly supported by facilitators and travel planners. We ought not assume a tourist who has been to Times Square understands social life in New York, or to the Great Wall understands social life of rural Chinese. Likewise, we ought not assume that students can apply their academic learning in the humanities or social sciences at the university level to their semester abroad in Rome, Paris or London.
What needs to be put in place in order to increase the relevance and impact of international travel on university students? The answer has three parts: before the travel, during the travel, and after the travel.
Before travel, explicit connections need to be made between the issues students explore in their courses and programs and the issues facing the communities to which they will travel. Certainly, some students take it upon themselves to explore their new contexts, meet local people and organizations, and engage more fully in their setting. However, many do not realize the profundity of their travel experiences for years to come, and may lament missed opportunities to authentically engage in those settings after the fact. Therefore, effective travel opportunities for college students should be front loaded with explicit background information on these settings, including cultural norms and history, as well as concrete preparatory work making explicit connections between those locales and the academic coursework the student has already done or is doing. Rather than expecting students to learn everything about the upcoming travel setting, tailoring topics to student interests makes for more engaging and meaningful preparatory work leading up to international travel. While some academic focus areas are ready-suited to particular travel destinations (for example architecture in Athens, Greece or visual arts in Paris), higher education institutions should proactively explore more diverse academic connections outside the common fields associated with travel abroad for university students.
During the international travel experience, experiences for students should prioritize engagement with an emphasis on relational connections rather than transactional connections to local actors. Students cannot always be expected to establish their own life-long connections on these travel experiences, and universities are well-suited to design and facilitate authentic experiences with local actors and organizations. Committing to providing students with relational experiences that facilitate authentic collaboration and communication with individuals and local organizations requires significant work on the part of the institution, but the likely impact on students is well worth the effort.
Finally, after the international travel experience, students need opportunities to share their experiences with their home institution, both with faculty, staff and other students. These opportunities can be informal, such as a social event where students discuss their travel abroad experiences. Opportunities can also be formal, such as formal presentations, panels or symposia. The key to making these opportunities impactful is for students to understand that something is at stake in their travel. When students understand the importance of being both a recipient and contributor of knowledge, the purposes of authentic connections become clearer. Further, institutions that communicate the potential positive impact that students can have on the world while being a student see positive outcomes from student international travel in short-term and long-term ways.
As we collectively emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and return to our pre-pandemic travel, I encourage universities world-wide to embrace more relational, embedded and authentic international travel opportunities for their students, with expressed efforts put toward before, during and after travel programming that brings these travel experiences to life in the lives and studies of students.