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Beginnings

After the First World War, American educators started to explore ways of engaging their students in learning about the greater world.  Focusing originally on Europe, study abroad efforts were primarily geared toward providing students with cultural experiences and foreign language instruction.

After World War II, a renewed commitment was made to study abroad as a means to advance not only cultural understanding, but peaceful co-existence. In addressing the United Nations Opening Session held at San Francisco in April 1945, President Harry Truman stated that “if we do not want to die together in war, we have to learn to live together in peace.”

In 1946, President Truman signed the law that established the Fulbright Program, envisioned by Senator J. William Fulbright. Designed primarily for graduate education, this program was the first major U.S. government effort to promote study abroad, and it firmly established the idea that studying in another country could be a means to advance peace. Today nearly 8,000 grants are provided annually to study and research in more than 155 countries. 

Study Abroad Today

Leaders from all walks of life frequently tout the value of study abroad. In January 2011 at a speech at Howard University in Washington, DC, First Lady Michelle Obama urged American college students to study abroad:

The defining challenges of our time are shared challenges. …The only way forward, the only way to solve these problems, is by working together.  That’s why it is so important for more of our young people to live and study in each other’s countries.  That’s how, student by student, we develop that habit of cooperation, by immersing yourself in someone else’s culture, by sharing your stories and letting them share theirs, by taking the time to get past the stereotypes and misperceptions that too often divide us.

Spending time overseas through an educational program can contribute to one’s personal growth and awareness. A study abroad experience, even if short term, can open one to new opportunities, cultures, ideas, and ways of working to advance peace internationally.

Yet American students don’t take advantage of study abroad opportunities at nearly the same rate as other youth around the world. The Open Doors Report on International Education Exchange issued in November 2015 reported that 304,467 college students studied abroad for academic credit during the 2013/14 year, which is about 10% of all students enrolled in colleges and universities in the U.S. 

But overall, the trend in U.S. students studying abroad is increasing, and non-traditional destinations are increasingly popular. While Europe still attracts the largest numbers of U.S. students, Americans are heading more and more towards regions and countries that are less familiar and where English is not the primary language. For instance in 2013/14 West Africa destinations saw an 14.9% increase (according to Open Doors). Destinations in Asia, Latin America and Caribbean and Mexico and Central America are also growing more popular. In the latest 2015 Open Doors Report, it was reported that 16 of the top 25 destination countries were outside Europe.


TOP 25 DESTINATIONS OF U.S. STUDY ABROAD STUDENTS, 2013/14


Rank

Destination

% of Total Students
Studying Abroad

1

United Kingdom

12.6

2

Italy

10.2

3

Spain

8.9

4

France

5.8

5

China

4.5

6

Germany

3.4

7

Ireland

2.9

8

Costa Rica

2.8

9

Australia

2.7

10

Japan

2.0

11

South Africa

1.6

12

India

1.5

13

Mexico

1.5

14

Argentina

1.4

15

Brazil

1.4

16

Ecuador

1.2

17

Czech Republic

1.2

18

Denmark

1.2

19

Peru

1.1

20

Chile

1.1

21

South Korea

1.1

22

Greece

1.0

23

New Zealand

1.0

24

Israel

0.9

25

Austria

0.9

Source: Institute of International Education. (2015). "Top 25 Destinations of U.S. Study Abroad Students, 2012/13 -2013/14." Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange. Retrieved from http://www.iie.org/opendoors

Some of these destinations are countries that have witnessed conflict and are in the midst of peacebuilding efforts, including Ireland, South Africa, India and Israel. Other countries on this list have dealt with conflict and war historically or are engaged in efforts to prevent future conflict.

Study abroad appears to be becoming an increasing priority among higher education institutions in the U.S. Goucher College, outside of Baltimore, started requiring a study abroad experience of every undergraduate as a condition of graduation.

Impact

Many in public life view their study abroad experience as a seminal one that helped them advance their careers.  In his third inaugural address in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made a plea to all Americans to learn more about the world – this in a way is a call to study abroad:

A nation, like a person, has a mind - a mind that must be kept informed and alert, that must know itself, that understands the hopes and needs of its neighbors - all the other nations that live within the narrowing circle of the world.

Study Abroad and Public Figures

Study abroad can provide an important window onto the world, and can shape subsequent career choices. Many important American public, cultural and political leaders have studied abroad including:

  • Carl Albert, Speaker, U.S. House of Representatives
  • Maya Angelou, Poet
  • Curtis Barnette, Chairman, Bethlehem Steel
  • James Billington, Librarian of Congress
  • John Brademas, President, New York University
  • Hal Bruno, Political Director, ABC News
  • Max Burns, U.S. Representative
  • Ben “Nighthorse” Campbell, U.S. Senator 
  • Wesley Clark, General, USA (Ret’d)
  • Bill Clinton, 42nd President
  • Thad Cochran, U.S. Senator
  • Rosa DeLauro, U.S. Representative
  • Rita Dove, U.S. Poet Laureate
  • W.E.B. Dubois, Author/Educator
  • Paul Farmer, Medical Anthropologist
  • Renee Fleming, Soprano
  • Milton Friedman, Nobel Prize Winning Economist
  • Theodore Seuss Geisel, Author
  • Margaret Greenfield, Washington Post Writer
  • Joseph Heller, Author
  • John Hersey, Author
  • John Irving, Author
  • Stacey Keach, Actor
  • Anthony Kennedy, U.S. Supreme Court Justice 
  • John Lithgow, Actor
  • Richard Lugar, U.S. Senator
  • Daniel P. Moynihan, Diplomat & U.S. Senator
  • Leo J. O’Donovan, S.J., President, Georgetown
  • Derek Bok, President, Harvard University
  • Alfred Partoll, Senior Vice President, AT&T
  • Philip Pearlstein, Painter
  • Thomas Pickering, Diplomat and Business Leader
  • Paul Robeson, Singer
  • Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President
  • Dean Rusk, Secretary of State
  • John Tower, U.S. Senator
  • David Souter, U.S. Supreme Court Justice
  • Admiral Stansfield Turner, Director, CIA
  • Katherine Harris, U.S. Representative
  • James Oberstar, U.S. House of Representatives
  • J. Robert Oppenheimer, Physicist
  • Sylvia Plath, Author
  • Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State
  • Walt Rostow, Presidential Adviser
  • Paul Sarbanes, U.S. Senator
  • James Watson, Nobel Prize Winning Biochemist
  • Gene Wilder, Actor
  • George Will, Syndicated Columnist
  • Heather Wilson, U.S. Representative