The Good of Going Global: Creating a Culture of Diverse Exchange

The world has changed dramatically in the last decade. Business is now more global than ever before. If you pick up the phone to call tech support, the person on the other end of the line might be from India. Join a large firm in the United States, and it will likely have offices overseas that will require employees to not only communicate, but also establish trusting relationships, with citizens of other nations. For students to succeed in today’s competitive marketplace, they should seek an education in which they are exposed to other cultures. Studying abroad prepares students for the increasingly global nature of the world in which they live and will work.

As president of Massachusetts Bay Community College in Wellesley Hills, I am sometimes asked why I believe that a study-abroad program should become a part of my community college (or any community college, for that matter). Do community college students — ranging from those who wish to go on to four-year colleges to those who want to brush up on skills they’ve already developed — really need to study abroad? Can they afford to? Can they find the time?

The answer to each of the questions above is a resounding“yes.” Increasingly, educators at community colleges are finding, just as their four-year counterparts are, that exposing their students to a global education is no longer a luxury, but must become part of higher education’s mission.

As we prepare students for life and for work, a global education is a necessary part of that preparation. Knowledge of their community, their state, and even their nation is no longer sufficient if they are going to be successful. We live in an increasingly more global society and the context of education must reflect that change. Exposure to other countries and foreign people can open eyes and minds not only to different cultures and traditions, but also to new ways of doing business and solving problems.

Students of a Global Society

Nearly 50 percent of all students enrolled in college in the United States are attending community colleges. Many of these students will not go on to a four-year institution upon completion of their course of study. Instead, when their community college education is over, they will go out into, or return to, the working world. It is a world that is global in nature, one in which knowledge of different people and their customs and cultures, countries, and continents is essential to success. More than 90 percent of Americans believe it is important to prepare future generations for a global society, according to a December 2005 national poll commissioned by NAFSA: Association of International Educators. More than that, the Committee for Economic Development said in its February 2006 report,“the global economic and technology revolutions are redefining the nation’s economic security and are reshaping business, work, and life.” As educators, we must reflect that change within our colleges, programs, and curricula.

The Nellie Mae Education Foundation wrote a report titled “New England 2020,” in which it addressed educational attainment and its implications on our workforce. It found a decline in the number of young people pursuing Bachelor’s degrees, a decline in the state’s working-age population, an increase in the number of minorities entering the workforce, and a widening achievement gap among whites and minorities, all of which spell out a need for community colleges like MassBay to focus on globalization.

If we attract the above segment of the population through programs that will be of interest to them, we will hold true to our mission of educating the next generation of workers who will provide the economic lifeblood to our regions. Those workers who truly understand the cultures and customs of those with whom they interact — even if it is only by telephone or e-mail — are those who are best prepared to work together with their global colleagues. And, by extension, they are those who are most likely to rise through the ranks and take on positions of increased responsibility and increased compensation.

The U.S. State Department acknowledged this in a 2004 report on the growing popularity of studying abroad. Commenting on the report in an official dispatch, then-State Department Assistant Secretary for Educational and Cultural Affairs Patricia S. Harrison said that studying abroad is “a sign that our students continue to recognize the importance of international study for their future careers and are eager to learn more about a world that is increasingly more interdependent. American students serve as the face of America to the world, especially to other young people, helping to counter stereotypes and misperceptions that may exist about our society and values.”

A Growing Trend

According to the Commission on the Abraham Lincoln Study Abroad Fellowship Program, one million U.S. students will study overseas by the 2016-2017 academic year. The report predicts that a good portion of those students will likely come from community colleges. But the report acknowledges that much progress must be made on the community college front in the next 10 years to achieve those numbers. While almost 50 percent of all U.S. college students are enrolled at community colleges, only 2.5 percent of students currently studying abroad are from community colleges.

How do we encourage more community college students to consider studying abroad? Many community college students are in the workforce and take courses part-time, often in the evenings. How can a part-time student who works full-time or a student with a spouse and children find the time to go overseas to study?

That it is challenging for students at community colleges to study abroad is not in dispute. Community colleges that offer study-abroad programs have found creative ways to allow their students to sample life, language, culture, and education overseas.

Some schools offer intense programs packed into a relatively short period of time, often over a vacation period such as winter break or during the summer. The International Studies Program at Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield, IL, recently offered a study abroad excursion to Europe, focusing on European warfare in the last 1,000 years. In 2003, the Wayne County Community College District in the Detroit area offered a program in which students spent 11 days in Ghana. The next year, 23 Wayne County students attended classes at the University of Sydney in Australia for 13 days. Last year, the Indian River Community College in St. Lucie County, FL, offered two study-abroad programs in Europe.

Other schools build a work component into their programs and extend the time period. Culinary arts students at Maryland’s Anne Arundel Community College take six- to eight-week-long courses working in the kitchens of northern Italian resorts. Students at Maryland’s Frederick Community College live and work for an entire semester in London.

No matter how the program is structured, one thing is for certain — the value of global education cannot be denied. More than a decade ago, the Stanley Foundation and the American Council on International Intercultural Education brought together community college educators and representatives from government, industry, and other organizations. The group published a report examining global education. The following quote is as relevant today as it was in 1995: “Global competency exists when a learner is able to understand the interconnectedness of people and systems, to have a general knowledge of history and world events, to accept and cope with the existence of different cultural values and attitudes, and indeed, to celebrate the richness and benefits of this diversity.”

Ready to Launch

How does a community college launch a study-abroad program? It can start simply — possibly just with the interest of a professor who likes to travel and who invites students to come along — and build through time. Community colleges can also dip their toes in the water by starting with informal visits; what are referred to as “cultural trips.”

At Massachusetts Bay Community College, we have sponsored short-term cultural trips in the recent past. This year, however, we have laid the groundwork for a more rigorous study-abroad program by hiring a director of international education and study-abroad programs. We have also reached out to our international students, who represent more than 50 countries. Recently, we hosted visiting trainees from Colombia and Ecuador, who attended workshops at our automotive technology program. I see this as planting seeds, so that eventually our students may travel to these countries and study their automotive plants as well as learn about Colombian and Ecuadorian culture while practicing Spanish language skills.

Some community colleges launch study-abroad programs by forming partnerships with larger U.S. schools that already have programs or with overseas universities looking to send students to our country for study-abroad programs. Community colleges in Maryland, for example, have formed a cooperative that allows their students to take part in programs offered by any of the cooperating schools. Community Colleges for International Development Inc., whose mission it is to help develop global relationships that strengthen educational programs, hosts study-abroad programs with colleges and high schools in the U.S. and abroad.

Massachusetts Bay Community College is currently exploring study-abroad collaborations with local four-year colleges. In the near future, we are hoping to launch a program with a two- to three-week study trip, for credit, to South America.

Finding Funding

I’m sometimes asked whether community college students can afford the cost of studying abroad. Cost need not be a deterrent.

Most programs allow students to pay the normal tuition rate at their colleges. The only added costs are travel and living expenses. We have begun to identify external funding sources so that finances are not a deterrent to students with limited resources. With the passing of the Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Foundation Act of 2007, the United States has taken steps to widen the scope of study-abroad opportunities by creating a national program that will establish study abroad as the norm, not the exception, for undergraduate students.

I believe that the cost of not broadening one’s education with a trip abroad —the cost of not gaining a global perspective on the world around you — can be much greater than the cost of traveling overseas.

Carole M. Berotte Joseph, Ph.D., is the president of Massachusetts Bay Community College in Wellesley Hills, MA, and the first Haitian-American to head a U.S. college. She has written extensively on bilingual education policy issues and second language teaching and learning, and she has won numerous awards for her work in higher education.