OPINION: Studying abroad should be mandatory

The education system at St. Thomas should put students in the best possible position to fulfill the values set forth by the institution. The St. Thomas mission statement says that students need to “work skillfully to advance the common good.”

What is this common good? And how can we work to advance it?

I believe the common good is a worldwide view that helps every living person. TommieMedia OpinionsEssentially, the common good places no special importance on people you know personally versus people across the world who we have never met.The latter are every bit a part of the common good as people we know personally.

In essence, working skillfully to advance the common good means, in my interpretation, that when students from St. Thomas face challenges globally and domestically they should have everyone in mind.Students should be thinking about these people across the world whom they have never met when working to advance the common good. This can, understandably so, be a difficult task.

How could someone from Minnesota possibly hold people from other countries in the same esteem when facing decisions on how to advance the common good?

Well, you have to understand those people from across the globe who we have never met You have to get to know them. They may have grown up differently than you and experienced different things. How do you get to know them? Meet them, live in their city and talk to them. Talk to them in an educational setting and pick their brain. The more you understand who they are and where they came from the more weight they will carry on your personal scale when facing decisions about advancing the common good.

This helps students escape their comfort zones and, in return, experience difference and diversity through their own lens. This could lead to students breaking down stereotypes they may have had and understanding different cultures in a new way.

According to a study done by University of California Merced, 89 percent of “study abroad alumni reported that study abroad facilitated a greater tolerance for ambiguity.” Studying abroad should, and seemingly has, create an educational atmosphere where new-perspectives and new ideas are embraced.

My colleague, Tam Kemabonta, wrote about, essentially, how out of touch Westerners are with many parts of the world. He brought up things that I was partially not aware of. This is a perfect example of why I think students should study abroad. Students should learn about these various opinions and have these difficult conversations in an educational setting. I see many merits in talking with fellow students who view the world much differently than you do. That is exactly what studying abroad should deliver to students.

In the classroom, students should be reading literature that is not predominantly American. This will, again, lead to differing perspectives and, at times, can provide students with contrasting information from the literature they have read in classrooms at home. This enables students to increase their awareness on all of the many ways to view the world and all of the ways that others view the world.

A German study cited by the University of California Merced seems to support this line of thinking. This study compared personality development and “found that students who studied abroad showed improvements in five core traits compared to their peers who did not study abroad: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and emotional stability.”

Then, when these students return home from their travel abroad experiences, they have new tools to use when looking at how to advance the common good. New perspectives, new information and, hopefully, a fresh view of the world. In return, students will learn more back at St. Thomas as well as they interact with others.

Then, there’s the business side of things. The world economy is becoming more globalized and interconnected. There would be no better way of learning than actually being in the middle of a global market with hands on experience. Part of the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management curriculum is a requirement to study abroad. If we want to be global business leaders, making studying abroad mandatory would be a step in the right direction.

There are many obstacles that could be in the way of a student studying abroad. Financial issues seem to be the root of that problem. The university should work with the study abroad office to make studying abroad affordable and accessible for all students. I think they have done this in a certain capacity. J-Term courses tend to be more expensive, but that will always be the case when a student takes only one class in a different country. Then, there are semester long St. Thomas-sponsored programs such as the London Business Semester and the Catholic Studies in Rome that are a “comparable” price as a semester at St. Thomas, according to university advertising. Also, St. Thomas allows students to study abroad for a semester long through American companies like the Institute for the International Education of Students that are actually cheaper in its sticker price than attending St. Thomas.

I think St. Thomas should look into partnering with schools abroad so that students are learning alongside international students. The problem with programs like the London Business Semester, or those through companies like IES, is that students are studying with other Americans. Part of the study abroad experience should be to learn with and learn from students who have never lived in the U.S. Sure, the London Business Semester is studying abroad, but is that really what studying abroad should be? Going to a different country to study with students exclusively from the same school at home?

St. Thomas would need to work with different programs and colleges to create a study abroad curriculum that is priced similarly for all students regardless of major.

Studying abroad should not slow down a student’s track to graduation. One semester abroad would only be one-eighth of a student’s overall St. Thomas education. To make this work, more study abroad classes need to be accepted as a fulfilment of each major so a student has no roadblocks in pursuit of a major. This could be solved simply by partnering with institutions abroad and figuring out approved courses ahead of time instead of running around campus trying to set up a meeting with the head of each department.

If we really want to advance the common good and become global leaders, I believe studying abroad should be inserted into our curriculum. There is no better way of understanding another culture than being immersed in it. And there is no better way of advancing the common good than thinking about everyone.

Jack Dodd can be reached at dodd0013@stthomas.edu

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