Curriculum

Studying Abroad Can Delay Students’ Education Attainment

By Jessica L. Tonn — December 06, 2005 4 min read
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Studying abroad conjures up glamour, romance, intrigue, and other exciting images for many teenagers. But the experience, however rewarding, often can have unpleasant consequences.

When 17-year-old Omid Azizi and 39 other Afghan students returned home in June from a U.S. State Department-sponsored venture, neither the Ministry of Education nor their schools accepted the credits they’d earned in the United States. Later, the ministry relented enough to allow the students to take the exams necessary to be promoted to the next grade or graduate in Afghanistan.

Still, the rejection of his credits did not come as a surprise to Mr. Azizi. “I may not get credit for this year,” he’d said last spring while enrolled in a Chicago high school, “but it has definitely been worth coming to America.”

The situation with the Afghan students is just one example of a common problem for both foreign students coming to the United States to study and American youths studying overseas: how to ensure that their time abroad will count on their high school transcripts once they get home.

Officials from Youth for Understanding, a Bethesda, Md.-based nonprofit exchange program, report that students from Germany and China, among other countries, usually do not get any credit for their exchange year in the United States. Some will bring a year’s worth of books for studying the courses they will miss so they can take final exams when they get home, according to Margie Ott, the organization’s director of programs.

Not getting credit “has become such an accepted part of exchange,” said Lisa Choate, the vice president and director of programs for American Councils, the Washington-based nonprofit educational-exchange organization that set up and administered the Afghan program, “that people [in the field] don’t talk about it.”

Christina I. Habib, the director of government-grants programs for the New York City-based iEARN-USA, an international education and networking group that recruits students from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Arab communities living in Israel for a foreign-exchange program, says her students face similar obstacles.

“When they come [to the United States],” she said, “they know that they’re basically surrendering the year.”

Ms. Habib said that her organization uses the possibility of students’ having to repeat the school year as a “weeding-out process” for the many applicants it receives. If applicants know that they will not get any credit and they still want to come, “it shows how serious they are about the intrinsic value of study abroad,” she said.

Talk About It

Talking with students and their families about the question of academic credit even before the students apply for study-abroad programs seems to be the best way to address potential problems, at least for American students, Ms. Choate and other program directors say.

David G. Barber, the director of admissions and registrations for Youth for Understanding, urges U.S. students to meet with a school guidance counselor before they plan to study abroad. He advises them to get an agreement in writing about what they need to learn in the time they are gone and what documentation they need to bring home to prove they have completed the requirements.

The credit problems usually stem from the differences between education systems, according to exchange-program leaders. Some school officials worry that their students will not acquire the same set of skills or knowledge if they are enrolled in another system. Strict graduation rules and testing policies add to the problem, program leaders point out.

For example, when Mr. Barber of Youth for Understanding studied in Germany as a senior two decades ago, he could not graduate when he returned to high school in Virginia Beach, Va., because he had not completed 12th grade courses in English and in Virginia and U.S. history. Even though Mr. Barber dropped out of high school, he fared pretty well. He applied to the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., and was accepted.

American students now can usually make up their missing coursework by doubling up on certain subjects, by taking summer school classes, or by enrolling in online courses while they are abroad.

But other countries’ school systems are often not as lenient with their students. In Pakistan, for instance, missing a level of some compulsory subject such as Urdu, causes most exchange students to have to repeat the year, according to Farah S. Kamal, the country coordinator for iEARN-Pakistan.

Participation Thrives

Idaho is one place that has sought to ease the way back for its students who go overseas.

In 2004, the state education department published “An Intercultural Education Guide for Idaho Schools,” a set of policy suggestions for schools that encourage student and teacher exchange. Among the suggestions is that “a student participating as an outbound student from an Idaho high school will receive appropriate credits toward graduation equivalent to the number which would have been earned during the same period of time.”

In most districts, though, foreign-exchange policies, Mr. Barber said, “tend to be nonexistent.”

Despite the possible complications, thousands of students still choose to take part in international exchanges every year. The New York City-based AFS Intercultural Programs, San Francisco-based AYUSA International, and Youth for Understanding, work annually with more than 9,500 students, both coming to and traveling from the United States.

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