College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

K-12 Study Abroad Linked With Improved Learning Outcomes

By Laura Engel — March 29, 2018 7 min read
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Intro: One thing we are sorely lacking in the field of global education is robust data related to our programs. That’s why I’m so pleased that Laura Engel, Associate Professor of International Education and International Affairs, George Washington University, has been working with DC Public Schools to gather and analyze data on student experiences and associated outcomes related to their study abroad programs.

The District of Columbia Public School (DCPS) Study Abroad Program, launched in 2016, as the nation’s first fully funded, districtwide, K-12 global travel program. To date, 801 middle and high school students have traveled on fully funded trips to 17 countries on 5 continents and over 500 new passports have been provided. The short-term trips take place during the summer, when students representing 38 secondary schools form groups led by DCPS educators. In the summer of 2017, 422 student travelers participated, 262 of whom were first-time travelers.

When you think of study abroad, you probably think of postsecondary programs, which are far more prevalent than K-12 study abroad. As is well noted in the study abroad literature, the majority of participants in postsecondary study abroad are white, female, and from higher income backgrounds. The DCPS Study Abroad Program stands in stark contrast, given its deliberate orientation toward equitable access to K-12 global travel. Ninety-one percent of 2017 travelers were students of color (compared to a district average of 82 percent) and 85 percent were free and reduced lunch recipients (compared to a district average of 76 percent). Student travelers also included students with 504s and IEPs, and they represented all eight of the city’s wards. Most powerful in exploring early exposure to global travel, 62 percent of 2017’s travelers were first-time international travelers, and 18 percent left the Washington, DC, area for the first time through the program.

Studying Study Abroad

The George Washington University (GW) has been leading research related to the DCPS Study Abroad Program since its inception. This partnership provides critical opportunities to examine the experiences of young people in global travel and the possible outcomes associated with this early exposure to global education. Each year, GW produces a case study on student experiences in study abroad and an exploration of the relationship between study abroad and student global competence, academic engagement, and social-emotional learning.

My team at GW uses a mixed-methods research design, generating annual data from interviews with 35 participating students and 8 educators, as well as administering three surveys to students: one prior to travel (n=276), one upon immediate return (n=138), and one roughly six months after students have returned from travel (n=40). Moreover, we are beginning to analyze data generated from official student records to explore college and career readiness, world language course enrollment, and overall achievement patterns.

What Have We Learned So Far?

Our research on 2017 travelers points to a range of compelling, and at times, unexpected findings. For example:

  • Students reported increased confidence in making friends and placed higher value on peer-to-peer relationships with other young people from across Washington, DC. Students described appreciating the experience of making friends from other DC schools, in many cases more than they expected. Ninety-three percent of surveyed students said they “got to know new friends” while studying abroad, and 71 percent of interviewed students mentioned greater self-confidence.

    As one student described, “I’m more outgoing now. I’m more confident in just going up and speaking to people. I’m not scared to approach a foreigner and start a conversation. I feel like a better person, like more of an adult.” Particularly powerful in a context where schooling is marked by racial and socio-economic divides, surveyed students reported increases in forming cross-district friendships and agreeing it was “easy” to make friends at other DCPS schools, while interviewed students reported the positive experiences building new relationships with peers from different schools, neighborhoods, and socio-economic and race/ethnic heritage backgrounds. These relationships persisted six months later, where one out of every two respondents to the intermediate post-travel survey reported communicating with their fellow travelers “often” or “all of the time.” As one student stated six months after returning, “the most powerful thing I learned on my trip was how much all the students on the trip had in common despite coming from very different parts of the city and backgrounds...It changed my perception of some of the other DC high schools and neighborhoods.”

  • Students reported enhanced feelings of gratitude and motivation for learning. Many students felt they had learned to be more “grateful” and “humble.” Students specifically identified free and accessible education, potable water, food security, and a clean environment as things they were grateful to have. Sixty percent of interviewed students spontaneously discussed gratitude during their reflections, while 21 percent of surveyed students identified gratitude as the most important thing they learned studying abroad. Many students connected this sense of gratitude with increased motivation to work harder in school and suggested that they felt more academically engaged.

  • Although communication in a foreign language was a notable challenge, it was also enjoyable, rewarding, and motivated students to continue studying a world language. Thirty-six percent of students identified language or communication barriers as their biggest challenge during their time abroad; yet, students found the experience and challenge of cross-cultural communication ultimately rewarding. In fact, 17 percent of students reported that increased confidence and enjoyment of cross-cultural social interactions as the most important thing they learned from their study abroad experience.

    In interviews, students reflected on their motivation to learn a world language: A middle school student stated, “I want to learn Spanish. I want to know what they are saying,” and a high school student described the additional push the overseas experience provides him when studying French: “Whenever French gets really hard...I remember how Morocco was and the fact that I’m taking this class [will] allow me to have a chance of having an experience that is just as good on my own, like going to live in a Francophone country or in France. So it’s just a little extra motivation.”

  • Obtaining and using a passport for the first time was a powerful experience for many students. During interviews, first-time passport holders expressed pride in their newfound access to additional travel opportunities as a result of owning a passport. As one middle school student explained, the passport “feels like I have an extra pathway to go if I were to reach the world...it’s like extending an arm. You have more reach to the outside than you ever did before.” A high school student described holding her passport for the first time as “my passage to getting further in life.”

  • Students expressed interest in studying, traveling, or working abroad in the future. Many interviewed students expressed a desire to travel abroad again and referenced their exploration of opportunities for additional travel in school or during postsecondary study. In addition, after studying abroad, 70 percent of surveyed students indicated their desire to study and work in another country in the future, an increase from 64 percent in the pre-travel survey. This was particularly powerful for the high school travelers, who stated that traveling “made me want to go to college more because I want to study abroad again.” and “every college visit or every college that visits my school, first thing I ask them is, ‘Do you have a study abroad program?’ because I know that’s what I want to do.”

Final Thoughts

Our research is helping narrow critical gaps between research, policy, and practice related to global education and leading to better understanding of the various associations between global experiences and student learning. These studies have already gleaned important knowledge and understanding about what “going global” means to young people from a wide variety of age, gender, socio-economic, race/ethnicity, and schooling backgrounds, and have opened up new avenues for continued research into short- and long-term connections between global travel and social-emotional learning, academic engagement, college access and retention, career readiness, and global competence.

Connect with Laura, GWU, Heather, and the Center for Global Education on Twitter.

Image taken by DCPS educator Carmen Jenkins-Frazier and used with permission of DC Public Schools.

* Acknowledgments: Research is often a team sport. I am grateful to the hard work and dedication of GW graduate students and alumni: Heidi Gibson, Clark Russell Boothby, Jessica Fundalinski, and Naomi Lesnewski, as well as DCPS Global Education, particularly Kate Ireland and Kayla Gatalica, DCPS educators who assisted in facilitating this research, and all participants in this research.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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