It was 2:46 p.m. on a Friday, in March 2011, and Maria Sebastian's political science course had just ended. The University of Richmond senior was completing a study-abroad program in Japan when the country's northeast region was hit with a devastating earthquake and tsunami.
"Although my university is hundreds of miles south of the epicenter of the earthquake, we distinctly felt our building sway," Sebastian says. "Living in Japan during this tragic period was both a difficult and valuable learning experience. I learned of the unity of a country in facing such a crisis and of the selflessness of so many locals and foreigners in assisting victims of the tsunami."
Sebastian is one of thousands of college students who participate in study-abroad programs each year. "Students are coming to college with the idea of studying abroad," says Theresa Johansson, assistant director of global education for study abroad at the College of William and Mary. "In some cases, it figures into their choice of college."
Students can go far beyond the traditional forays into Western Europe, as study-abroad offerings have expanded. According to 2011 data from the Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, there's a steady and significant increase in the numbers of American students going to Israel, China, South Africa, Peru, Brazil, India, New Zealand and Japan.
At UR, the top five countries or regions in which students study abroad are Spain, the United Kingdom, Italy, Denmark and Australia, but many students are going farther afield.
"We have diversified our offerings to include countries such as Brazil, Israel, Turkey and Korea," says Joe Hoff, UR's associate dean of international education. "We have programs in Thailand, China and Hong Kong, and we started a new agreement with the University of [the] West Indies. We are sending one student there next year."
Sebastian has also traveled to France, India and Uganda, where she spoke to individuals who had been victims of war and genocide during her study-abroad program.
"I met with a woman's association in southern Rwanda that brought together widows who lost their husbands in genocide with other women whose husbands had murdered during genocide," she says. "The women counsel each other and provide financial support for each other. They build lasting relationships with one another. It is because of these experiences that I have a greater appreciation for those on the frontline of the long and difficult process of reconciliation and forgiveness."
The length of each study program can vary; students can go abroad for a year, a semester or just a couple of weeks, often on faculty-led trips, which Hoff says are growing in popularity.
Still, students are demanding more than ever before from their programs. Study abroad "is not just attending classes at a foreign institution anymore," says Jose Sainz, director of the Center for International Education at University of Mary Washington, in Fredericksburg. "We are seeing students now looking at programs which also offer internships, volunteer opportunities, service-learning components, etc."
Often, the programs can be a steppingstone toward a career. "[Students] are beginning to realize that these international experiences are an essential part of their education," says Stephanie Davenport, director of education abroad at Virginia Commonwealth University. "Also, there are more programs and scholarships targeted at students from diverse backgrounds [or] less advantaged economic backgrounds and under-represented majors such as science, technology, engineering and math."
Amy Smetana, a senior at UMW, studied in Egypt and Peru. "I chose Egypt because I was learning Arabic, and I wanted to be immersed in the language," she says. "I also wanted to go to Egypt because I feel that in the United States we do not have a very good idea of what life is like in the Middle East and that we always get a very biased or incomplete picture in the news."
Many students who study abroad are business majors. "They are leading the way," says Johansson, of William and Mary. Among those students, she adds, "there is an increasing interest in China and Japan."
Sainz finds that students are taking more international-affairs classes while abroad, "more courses that can be fully transferred back to their major, whichever it may be. Also, many students choose classes at a host institution that offers some sort of cultural aspect that is not necessarily part of the curriculum at our campus. For example, dance or cooking classes."
Another UMW senior, Joseph Calpin, chose a program in Harbin, China, (alternately called Ice City, because of the low temperatures from Siberian winds) because he needed to increase his knowledge of Mandarin for his graduate studies in Chinese history. "Harbin actually ended up being a great choice because very few Americans and other English speakers go there to vacation," he says.
Heather Thornton, a UR senior, has studied in India and completed another abroad program in Brazil in December 2011. In India, Thornton's classes focused on development-related topics as well as issues specific to the subcontinent. During her program, she also completed a six-week internship with a nongovernmental (i.e., nonprofit) organization. In Brazil, she took an intensive course in Portuguese.
"Studying abroad has altered my perception of the world and my place in it," she says. "It has taught me how to look for the similarities among people instead of the differences. Most importantly, it has confirmed for me that I would like a career working in diplomacy and/or development."