Why study abroad? Numerous websites will give you a top ten list of reasons. They are almost certain to tell you that it is fun, that you can satisfy degree requirements, that the experience is transformational…… All this is true–but these are not reasons to study abroad and they are not the crieria to use when selecting programs and locations. Almost all of these experiences are transformational, but you can get similar experiences without ever leaving the U.S. It would be a very poor program that isn’t fun, and why travel abroad to do classes that you could just as easily do here?
Study abroad will help you grow as a person, it will help dispel stereotypes of other cultures and help you recognize stereotypes within your own culture. It will have a profound affect on your world view and your future life (you’ll find all of this on those websites too). This is a little harder to achieve whilst staying on campus, but you can get a long way to building this global awareness through classes, by thinking critically about the world around you and, most importantly, by making a real effort to meet and get to know our international students and visitors on campus.
So, again, why study abroad? Quite simply, while clichéd, we really do live in a global society. Regardless of how high your GPA might be, your education is incomplete if you graduate without developing global awareness. Furthermore, there is increasing demand from large companies, government agencies and non-governmental organizations for employees who can go beyond global understanding and awareness and who have the skills to actively participate in this global society. Being able to function globally doesn’t mean learning a few customs and some words of a language–any tourist can do that–it means that you can engage with people across cultural and linguistic barriers in ways that result in meaningful collaboration and problem solving. Those same companies and organizations that want global competency skills are also looking for leadership qualities, and global leadership means that you recognize the strength in diversity. Global leadership does not mean being the best in the world; it is the understanding that different societies and cultural groups have different ways of seeing the world and different approaches to defining and solving problems. Global leaders are people who can embrace and build on those different perspectives. Finding opportunities to build global competency and starting to develop global leadership skills means spending part of your educational program abroad.
While we are on the subject of what employers are looking for in a graduate, it is worth pointing out that GPA is a small part of what they want–that doesn’t mean it can be low–you still need a good GPA. But, consider that however high your GPA, there will be others graduating with you that have a GPA close to, or even better than yours. Furthermore, there will be students graduating all across the country from top research universities with the same degree as you and just as good a GPA (and the top international corporations–they are looking globally for their employees, not just within the U.S.). So you need that good GPA from a top university such as Penn State, but to be really competitive, you need a lot more. These organizations want to see that you have some global experience, that you can work effectively as part of a team, that you have some leadership qualities, good critical thinking and problem solving abilities, and good communication skills. Most of this, you get outside of the classroom–in study abroad, research experiences, internships and other extramural and extracurricular activities.
So, when looking at study abroad programs, look for those that go beyond the superficial living and studying in another country and find ones that provide opportunities for that deeper level of engagement that builds global competency and global leadership. And, while you are doing that, look for programs that help build the other skills that employers want to see. Penn State’s motto is Making Life Better. Citizenship, whether we are talking at the local, national or international scale carries with it responsibility. As global citizens and as members of the Penn State community, you have a responsibility to give back and to help in some way to make life better–so when selecting a study abroad experience, look also for those that provide you that opportunity, where the location you travel to and the people you engage with are somehow better off because you were there.
So Why Africa? If you look at western Europe, Australia and New Zealand (the preferred destinations for the majority of Penn State students who study abroad), our similarities are much larger than our differences–we share a common heritage and our perspectives on the world are very similar. Where cultural differences are greater and the challenges of working together more complex, then there is more opportunity for building those global competency and leadership skills. In addition, it is harder to grow as a person if you stay entirely within your own comfort zone. The experience is richer and the rewards greater if your study abroad experience pushes the limits of where you are comfortable.
All of Penn State’s programs in Africa take place in a very different cultural and physical environment than most Penn State students are familiar with. Learning to adapt to this environment is part of the fun and the challenge of being there. The challenge is intellectual, emotional and physical. In all of these programs there are long days working in the field or in rural and urban communities requiring both stamina and adaptability. We are not simply moving our campus classes and teaching them in a different location. On these programs, your classroom is the forest or grasslands of the nature reserves and the schools, clinics and households of rural communities or urban townships; you are ambassadors for your country and your university–everyone you interact with knows you are from Penn State and your success doesn’t just rest on your own ability–it rests on the entire group, the Africans you work with, and what you yourself bring to the table. The time you spend in Africa will be unlike anything else you have experienced in College.
Oh — and if it wasn’t obvious, any of these programs will change your lives, and nobody has come back from one of these programs and said it wasn’t fun.