The new frontiers? Community & climate's place in Study Abroad

Group of students walking together into the distance symbolizing community and climate

A recent European Association of Study Abroad Associations (EUASA) conference session was provocatively titled ‘Drawing the Battle Lines: the Future of Study Abroad in Europe’.  Combative language such as this is uncommon throughout the higher education field.  But the world around us does feel like we are at one of those junctures where the way our field operates needs to change.  

Questions such as what the role of universities should be within society, and how higher education should be reimagined to best serve the needs of students are being openly discussed.  Where does study abroad see itself in this evolving future?  

A recalibrated approach to education abroad built around intentionally designed, genuine community  and environmental engagement is a necessary step forwards. It’s clear our students are actively looking for the sector to be taking a proactive stance when it comes to climate and society.

Education abroad programs can help complement what is happening at the home campus, and provide a focal point for student interest.  Not only that, by being actively engaged as a sector, we demonstrate to the political classes we are not ivory towers, but active members of civic society.

Old challenges, new challenges...& the challenge (?) of Gen Z

Old challenges still with us

Successfully leaving with a degree. What else?

The ongoing challenges giving leadership teams cause to scratch their heads are well known.  Fee income lost throughout Covid continues to present a challenge to a sector where many institutions across the US had already been considering what strategies might offset the shrinking pool of students.  

The viability of online tuition demonstrated through the waves of Covid showed that e-learning deserves to be at least considered in universities’ toolkits.  Not least because a generation of digital natives see their phones and laptops as an extension of themselves. 

In this environment, doubling down on strategies where universities are crucibles for essential skills development continues to be more important than ever.   The survival of recruitment dependent colleges is at stake.  

Study Abroad’s place in the Higher Ed debate

Where does study abroad fit in this debate? Many of us have experienced, (or at least seen friends) retrenched as parent institutions sought to claw back Covid’s financial hits and restructure to account for ‘core needs’.

The benefit of study abroad experiences has always, and should always be, questioned in the context of a university’s broader educational goals.  

Are students building a sense of grit, and positively engaging with the host culture?  Can the essential skill development we hold as a hallmark of study abroad experiences be achieved without going overseas?  How does study abroad enhance (not only meet) the same experience students who don’t travel have on campus?

New challenges: colleges, politics and the question of civics

Like buses, big questions asked of our sector often seem to come at once.  If the operating model of the field has been tested by the pandemic, a more existential topic: what role should the higher education sector occupy in our society? has been increasingly asked in an era of heightened political tension.  Higher education as a mechanism for solving social problems has had a long tradition across American campuses, but now civics is being stressed as more important than ever

This view is coming from both sides of the political spectrum.  From the right, it is being used as a means for advancing the concept of ‘nation’. From the left, it is being used as a means to show young people we all have a stake in solving the challenges broader society faces. A recent article in The Atlantic by Hillary Clinton titled The Weaponization of Loneliness is a case in point.

Donkey and elephant symbolizing the argumentative political classes in Americna politics
There's plenty of direction about the future of Higher Education. It just depends who you ask

We in higher education are being looked upon to reboot a core part of an eroded social contract.  Higher Education is renewing what it means to be a citizen with responsibilities, not just an individual with rights.  There is much cause for optimism in this regard, with campuses across America putting in place civic initiatives, centers and policies. 

The expectations of Gen Z we need to meet

All of this then falls within the question of what best serves the needs of our students.  Whether it’s driven by the sector’s ongoing relevancy or to distinguish a university / department from its peers.  

The expectations of ‘the sharing generation’ are instructive for leadership teams across the country.   Gen Z want colleges to be:

A means to an end.  72% of students (including international students) cite skills development as more important than a university’s place in a ranking table.

Flexible. Contrary to popular opinion, the majority of students (51%) prefer face to face experiences over online or virtual.  While they do want flexible learning models, they are sceptical that remote learning alone can provide the skills necessary to succeed in the workplace.

Collaborative. They are the ‘sharing generation’ and want collaborative learning where they can share their learning experiences with their peers.

A training ground for changing the world.  They are socially and environmentally aware and want a college experience that prepares them for taking action

Socially responsible.  A massive 75% have said a college’s environmental commitment would affect their decision to apply or not.

Caring. Mental health challenges are on the rise.  A British study found a 450% rise in the number of mental health declarations during 2010-2020.

Putting community and climate friendly education at the center of study abroad

Plant growing thorugh a crack in the brick.  Symbolizing resilience
Resilience flourishes in a challenging environment

As we grapple with the profound questions about the role of universities in society, education abroad finds itself at a critical juncture. To meet the evolving needs of our students and society, a recalibrated approach that embraces intentional social and environmental engagement is essential.

Education abroad programs offer a unique opportunity to complement and enhance the learning experience at the home campus. By actively engaging students in immersive experiences that foster collaboration, grit, and inclusivity, we can empower them to become well-rounded global citizens. 

Where does a consideration of the climate fit in?

Moreover, by taking a proactive stance on the climate, the higher education sector demonstrates its commitment to being a ‘good citizen’ when it comes to the planet. Our students are concerned about the climate emergency and it’s only right that we anchor climate education and best practices in our programs abroad.

Addressing the mental health challenges faced by students 

The rise in mental health declarations is a reminder of the need to create supportive environments that nurture student well-being. Community engagement plays a pivotal role. When students are actively involved in community projects and civic initiatives, they develop a sense of belonging and purpose that helps prevent alienation and feelings of isolation. 

The power of community-driven initiatives extends beyond the individual; it fosters a sense of shared responsibility, creating a positive ripple effect that benefits both students and the broader society.

Grou pof student spushing a ball up a hill together
Sharing the journey? A sense of belonging thrives in a spirit of group purpose

The expectations of Gen Z

The “sharing generation” looks to us to create an educational experience that goes beyond traditional academic metrics. These young individuals seek a college experience that prepares them to make a real difference in the world. By prioritizing social responsibility and climate action, colleges and universities can demonstrate their commitment to addressing the pressing challenges of our time.

The shape of things to come in the education sector rests on our collective ability to deliver on these promises. As campuses across the country respond to the call for experiences with community education and climate action at their core, we must move closer to a vision of education abroad that is socially impactful, globally conscious and fosters a sense of purpose, belonging, and mental well-being.

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