Many of today’s college students grew up listening to their parents reminisce about studying abroad. So, it's no wonder that programs abroad have seen a surge in popularity, even as they've undergone drastic changes.
Hundreds of thousands of students will leave the U.S. this school year to — at least in theory — hit the books in foreign countries. Butler University’s Institute for Study Abroad alone now sends about 3,500 abroad each year. In 1989, the program sent 57. Here is a second statistic: A recent study at the University of Washington found that students studying abroad are likely to significantly increase, if not double, their alcohol intake while away. Unlike their parents, who today’s students can likely thank for taking them on trips abroad — study abroad applicants are likely to have traveled. Rather than stepping out blinking into the foreign light, these 19- and 20-year-olds are going out on the town. Ironically, a generation whose passion for travel was fueled by early study abroad programs has, in taking their kids abroad, birthed a generation that sees similar programs as an excuse to party.
“I was kind of getting antsy at my school,” says Lee Tilghman, a senior at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, who headed to London last year “expecting to drink and go out and party, because I really didn’t do that much at school.” Lee said her plans were informed by conversations with recently returned students who told her that “Teachers know that you’re traveling and that you really don’t want to be spending that much time on your studying.” Several programs have basically institutionalized this laidback attitude. “The program that I did put a pretty generous curve on the grading system,” says Charles Gillihan, a rising senior at Columbia University who studied abroad in Lima, Peru, where local students were graded on a 20-point scale. His program “essentially moved the scale back two points.” Under this system, students only had to receive 11 points out of 20 to get a C, the minimum grade required to earn credit for the program. Like many programs, Gillihan’s transferred credits, not grades, so students' Columbia transcripts didn’t suffer the consequences of truancy.
The different pacing of foreign universities can also contribute to the slacker culture. Where American students are hammered constantly with tests, graded coursework in countries like England and Spain consists mainly of final exams at the end of the semester. Unfazed by the spectre of a distant test, U.S. students focus on the abroad part of studying abroad.
Some see that as proof the system is working.
“You don’t want to just be doing homework,” said Janet Manthey, who traveled to Costa Rica for the spring semester of her sophomore year, and then to Wales for the spring semester of her junior year. “You learn just as much when you’re out doing cultural things and traveling and talking to people.” But students also appear to be avoiding immersion. The United Kingdom has been the top destination for decades, followed by Italy and Spain. Over the last few years that lead has increased as the number of students in Italy and Spain shrank by 10.8 and 4.1 percent, respectively. Britain is, of course, foreign — but not very. Prawn sandwiches and Pimm's aside, English and American cultures are largely similar, a fact that illustrates students are putting less of an emphasis on the experiential learning Manthey describes. Conversations with English people are likelier to turn towards the latest Hollywood blockbuster as they are to turn towards the War of the Roses. Contrasted against their parents, this generation of student travelers is not a particularly adventurous lot. The baby boom generation embraced the exotic with its trademark near-doctrinal enthusiasm. “I wanted to have that experience, wanted to be abroad, wanted to learn another language,” said Deb Cherson, who studied in Grenoble, France in the spring of 1975. Deb lived with a girl around her age and the girl’s mother, neither of whom knew any English, which forced Deb to speak only French when at home. “Everbody’s just so much more interconnected now,” Deb says. When she left for France in 1975, “You really had to just face the fact that you were going to be really far way from what you’re used to.” In contrast, Claudia Hochstein, a senior at the University of Minnesota who traveled to the University of Edinburgh in her junior year, made the following claim: “I probably talked to my parents more than I do while I’m in Minnesota. I could call them from my cell phone for less than it cost me to call someone in Scotland.” “Kids can write blogs, can have Facebook and everything, they’re sharing their experiences with other people who are abroad,” said Linda Hochstein, Claudia’s mother. “It’s easier for them to hook up with friends, to travel around. Claudia did a lot of couch surfing. I couldn’t really travel, couldn’t afford to go to other countries. If I had had that option that would have been awesome.” With great couch surfing comes little responsibility: Between being far from home, being allowed to drink and being on a perceived vacation, students abroad often feel — and act — as if they’re on spring break.
This past May, a professor at the University of Florida issued a furious email threatening expulsion to students on a study abroad trip in Florence after they were filmed partying with the cast of Jersey Shore. The decision was later reversed by the school’s administration, but the response reiterated the need for students to “meet the academic and living requirements of that program.”
Not too shockingly, this Eurotrip mentality has not led to cosmopolitanism. There are fewer American expats than expats from the U.K., Germany, Italy, Canada and France. To put that in perspective: Those countries cumulatively have a smaller population than the U.S.
That being said, American students rarely fail to gush about what they learned overseas.
“I saw countries I never thought I would see, gained a new sense of independence, really had so much fun,” Lee said. Whether these reactions are genuine, a testament to the emotional power of travel or simply the result of parents shoving a certain study abroad vocabulary down their children’s throats (maturity, independence, goal-orientation) is hard to tell. What is absolutely clear is that those three minutes in front of the Mona Lisa seem longer in retrospect than a night spent in the gutter of the sixth arrondissement.