When Destiny Davis visited Macau, China, last school year as a Fulbright English-teaching assistant, 4th graders in an after-school program at PS 277 in the Bronx borough of New York got to virtually tag along.
With a 12-hour time difference between Macau and New York, Davis would rise just before 4 a.m. to link up with students via Skype every other week for a “virtual exchange.” She’d write a blog for the students that occasionally included a visual—an aerial photo of Macau, for example, or a video of her walking the Great Wall of China.
“The whole point is to inspire the children to travel,” said Davis, a 2014 graduate of Agnes Scott College who recently returned to Georgia from China.
“Of course, they can read about my experience and see me in all these beautiful places,” Davis said. “But to be able to talk to me, that builds a stronger connection and then when they do get to college, they can say, ‘That inspired me to travel.’ ”
Such is the hope behind Generation Study Abroad, a campaign begun last year by the Institute for International Education, or IIE, that aims to dramatically increase the number of American college students who study abroad.
The short-term goal—to double the number of students who study abroad by the year 2020, from 300,000 undergraduates per year, or less than 1 in 10 of all undergraduates, to 600,000—will focus more on connecting with students in high school, because those are the students who will be in college soon enough to help reach the end-of-the-decade goal, an IIE official said. But the longer-term strategy will involve virtual hookups with elementary and middle schools, such as the one that Davis did with PS 277.
“We really feel that to inspire students to study abroad you must start much earlier if you want to build the pipeline,” said Daniel Obst, a deputy vice president for international partnerships in higher education at IIE.”
Along those lines, IIE plans to award 50 $1,000 grants early next year to support middle and high school teachers who “internationalize their classrooms” and who advocate the idea of study abroad.
The movement to send more students abroad gained momentum in Congress as well, where earlier this month two lawmakers—U.S. Reps. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.) and Jim Himes (D-Conn.)—formed a new bipartisan Congressional International Exchange and Study Caucus.
The caucus seeks to raise awareness about the importance and impact of international exchange and study programs. It hopes to highlight the role that study abroad plays in fostering cross-cultural understanding and foreign language skills, which can benefit sectors ranging from business to diplomacy, the lawmakers said.
For K-12 administrators, though, infusing international experiences into the classroom must be about more than just connecting students to college students as they go abroad, said Cathy Dalimonte, an assistant principal at Queens Creek Elementary School in North Carolina’s Onslow County school system."If it was just about, ‘Oh, here’s a country,’ ‘Oh, that’s global awareness,’ that’s kind of superficial,” Dalimonte said. “But the fact that it goes deeper than that, and those study-abroad students are connecting to the specific learning happening in the classroom, that’s the difference, and that’s where deeper understanding can be had.”
Connecting to Curriculum
Dalimonte got her first experience connecting a classroom to a study-abroad student a few years back when she worked as a 5th grade teacher at the Claude Erwin Elementary Magnet School of International Studies and Cultural Arts in Onslow County.
She said her students communicated via Web-conferencing tools with study abroad students visiting a rain forest in Brazil and a desert in Morocco. The links were facilitated by the University of North Carolina’s Center for International Understanding. The program cost about $1,000 per year, but the center picked up the tab, Dalimonte said.
The personal connection with the study-abroad students in rain forests seemed to make a difference in the Onslow County 5th graders’ performance on end-of-grade science tests, Dalimonte said.
“They nailed the ecosystem part of the science test,” she said, although she did not recall the specifics. “They have that personal connection, and they’re retaining that information, and it becomes part of them as opposed to just reading about it.”
Dalimonte said her one regret is that she didn’t better track pre and post-test data to measure the academic impact of the experience. But it’s something she said she plans to do going forward in the district, where four schools are currently linked with traveling students.
Davis, the Fulbright student who worked with PS 277, did so through Reach the World, or RTW, a New York-based nonprofit that connects volunteer world travelers with students in public schools in low-income areas nationwide through a program that involves Web-based journalism, video conferencing, and collaborative projects. It costs schools in New York $3,500 per year to operate and involves three, 12-week cycles with study-abroad students throughout the world, plus weekly in-class assistance from the program. An online version is available nationwide at a cost of $100 per 12-week cycle.
This school year, the program has 166 correspondents in 58 countries.
RTW’s evaluations suggest—not unexpectedly—that most students who go through the program express an interest in study abroad afterward and in attending college like the travelers they connect with virtually.
Dalimonte said increased college ambitions are a byproduct of the early exposure. “It will benefit them [the younger students] greatly as far as having kids who are the first in their families to go to college to even have that mindset of even thinking about college,” Dalimonte said.
A version of this article appeared in the October 21, 2015 edition of Education Week as Study-Abroad Programs Build ‘Next Generation’ Travelers in K-12 Schools