Study abroad “as promised”

February 10, 2017

By Gregory Spear, Assistant Director of Global Living and Learning Programs in the Office of Global Education at Georgetown University.

At my previous institution, legend told of a student who, in an anonymous program evaluation, once remarked that in her host city of Rome there was “more Italian spoken” than she expected.  Feedback like this, when not suggesting any serious programmatic shortcomings, is generally noted with a dose of humor (Is there too much English spoken in England?), and serves as a gentle reminder that in striking out into the world, some of our students are undertaking larger first steps than others.

All students come to the study abroad experience carrying specific sets of knowledge, attitudes, and ways of viewing the world and themselves that are shaped by positionality and past experience.  For the vast majority of students, the formative power of study abroad, as a form of experiential education, resides in the liminal space between these pre-conceived ideas and beliefs and the reality of experience (Kolb, 1984, 2015; Vande Berg, 2012). Expressed in informal conversations, program or scholarship application essays, or formal “pre-flective” activities, students’ expectations going into the experience are a useful indicator of where our students begin their journey of change, though not necessarily how far they will go.

In my own past experience designing, advising for, and assessing study abroad programs, I have begun to notice a troubling trend in the way some students have a habit of responding when events break with those expectations.  Like many people involved in the work of coordinating complex global learning experiences, I’ve faced situations in which students have questioned program leaders’ decisions, complained about  grading methods and course content, or protested modest changes to accommodations or program itineraries, sometimes quite litigiously.  Couched in terms like “as promised” or “as advertised”, these responses point toward a very different kind of expectation, one that offers little promise of intellectual or cultural formation.

Whenever these circumstances arise, I can’t help but notice a tension in asking students to be open, reflective, independent, and flexible learners, and the kinds of rigid and sometimes unrealistic expectations that many students often bring to the experience.  I suspect this tension reflects a regrettable broader reality tied to the rising cost and increasing commodification of higher education in the United States.  The causes and symptoms of this are well-documented — the ritual cutting of public funding, combined with the inflated costs of building and maintaining a top-tier university, and the increasing demand for more and more specialized training in the hunt for lucrative professions.  The result, as William Deresiewicz (2014) and others have described, is a corporatized system designed for efficiency and not educational value, which casts the student in the role of consumer and the institution as supplier of goods and services (Newfield, 2008; Folbre, 2010).  Throw in the additional expenses usually associated with study abroad participation, and it’s not hard to understand why students monetize every aspect of the experience, weighing each dollar they spend against the perceived return on investment.

While many rightly decry the misalignment of these changes with the foundations of the US higher education system, their effects can be particularly deleterious in the context of education abroad.  The experiential and constructivist nature of student learning abroad reflects its place within a larger shift from traditional classroom-based and teaching-centered approaches toward pedagogies that place students and their own ability to construct knowledge at the center of the learning process.  This shift has profound implications for the traditional undergraduate curricula for which students arrive prepared.  With regard to this shift and its effect on the future of course and curriculum design, biology professor Heidi Elmendorf (cited by Bass, 2014 TEDx Talk) posits that “ultimately all faculty, or even institutions, can do, is create such opportunities for students… the learning, what happens in the space of those opportunities, is because of what students choose to make of them.”  The commodification of higher education, reduced to the simple calculus of “what I pay for is what I must get”, seems to run counter to these kinds of student-driven approaches to teaching and learning.

This dichotomy invites some perplexing questions for those who ground their work in experiential pedagogies.  How can we insulate student-centered methods from the often transactional relationships between our students and our institutions?  How do we instill a sense of humility and gratitude in light of growing entitlement arising from a “customer satisfaction” mentality?  At what point do unmet or misplaced expectations become grounds for remediation?  And to what extent are some of the causes (and perhaps solutions) to these problems embedded in our own practices, and therefore within our power to change?

I don’t wish to suggest that these questions can be answered in a single blog post — at least not this one.    But I’d like offer a few thoughts on this last question.

ARGUMENT: It is my contention that individuals that design and deliver education abroad programs can do more to “set the stage” for global learning through interactions with students long before any formal instruction begins.

The remainder of this essay will discuss three areas in which students’ expectations are formed throughout the earliest stages of the study abroad process, and hopefully offer ideas that faculty and staff working in these spaces can use to more intentionally manage those expectations in a way that minimizes self-imposed obstacles to transformative learning.


Problem #1 – Students often begin formulating expectations about study abroad before having any direct engagement with faculty or staff.  As Talya Zemach-Bersin (2009) points out, advertising is not benign, and it both draws on and seeks to shape the beliefs and desires of its audience.  As she demonstrates, study abroad offices and universities frequently deploy imagery and rhetoric that taps into the motives of students, while unintentionally bolstering false and sometimes harmful assumptions about host countries and their people.  Even the most ubiquitous and seemingly benign tropes of study abroad marketing, like those depicting students gazing from atop mountains or tutoring small children, draw on deep-seated desires of exploration, conquest, and benevolence that reenact historic and contemporary imbalances of power rooted in a not-so-distant colonialist past.  These unintended effects pose a particular burden in the context of programs built around service or community engagement, since misplaced motivations and expectations can inflict adverse and unintended outcomes upon local community partners and their constituents.

Recommendation #1 – While many study abroad professionals are sensitive to these issues and the need to address them before sending students abroad, their methods for doing so often begin well after initial ideas have been planted by months of subliminal and indirect messaging that has fed the very motives and expectations they later seek to dispel.  Notably, the standards set forth in the Fair Trade Learning framework and rubric (Hartman, 2015) include a conscious commitment to educative and ethical recruitment and marketing publications methods.

One particular way in which study abroad offices sometimes run aground in these efforts is in relying on photos from current or returned students to populate online and print media.  This practice has obvious benefits in terms of cost-saving and the added marketing value of highlighting students’ peers.  However, without sufficient guidance, it quickly leads to the kinds of photos that depict superficial engagement (the gondola ride) or pure adventurism (the elephant or camel ride).  To impart substance and incorporate global learning into student photos, I’ve begun to experiment with a new format for student photo submissions.  Inspired by GlobalSL’s Ethical Photo Contest, the concept identifies select students to serve as “travel correspondents”, a commitment which would require a certain number of blog and photo entries during their time abroad.  Rather than traditional travel blogs or photos, each entry must focus on a specific “moment” that contains elements of one of the following themes: Globalization; Crossing Cultures; Citizenship; Moments of Clarity.  Instead of descriptive breadth, these assignments challenge students to go deeper in their analysis of a specific experience, and notably can portray positive or negative sides of each theme. In addition to the rich opportunity for reflection that it provides to the correspondent, these assignments produce photos and marketing materials that can be used to balance the typical stream of selfies, plates of food, and the ubiquitous mid-air group jumps that have come to dominate study abroad marketing.

Advisement and Admissions Process

Problem #2 – The advisement and admissions processes represent two overlapping phases in which education abroad offices have sustained contact with their students, yet how that time is structured is often susceptible to larger forces.  With the embrace of campus internationalization and global education initiatives, many study abroad offices are coming under renewed pressure to show growth and productivity, with progress most easily quantified through the lens of student enrollments.  An unspoken emphasis on quantity of programs, partnerships, and participants creates competing objectives for those who advise outbound students.  Given the many well-known barriers to study abroad, many find an overwhelming portion of their time dedicated to shepherding students down the rather narrow and lengthy path from prospective applicant to participant.  To be clear, many of those who advise students, myself among them, see this as a laudable and gratifying part of their work — indeed, concerted efforts to increase participation and access for underrepresented student populations are still widely needed.  But metrics of success driven solely by numbers, coupled with the steadily-growing volume of students, leaves precious little of the advisor’s time and attention for learning about, much less shaping, students’ motives and expectations during the advisement phase.

Similarly, admissions processes do little to encourage students to think deeply about their motives, expectations, and goals.  Most study abroad processes resemble the competitive application processes to which students are well-accustomed, if usually only in form and not in actual rigor.  Minimum GPA requirements, recommendations, and personal statements help to frame the study abroad experience as an academic undertaking, but students mistake it as another high stakes, competitive box to be checked. The result is students echoing what they think their readers want to hear, rather than reflecting on their true motives, expectations, and objectives.

Recommendation #2 – Alternative personal statements might prompt students to consider: “Describe your expectations, both of the program and host country, and also of yourself.”  Rather than trying to move them through the application process as quickly and painlessly as possible, pushing students to respond to such questions with specificity and honesty would help ensure that all students begin to consider these questions early and sets the tone that their participation is contingent on their ability to engage in this kind of reflective thinking.

Pre-departure Orientation and Coursework

Problem #3 – The pre-departure phase represents a critical and heavily utilized opportunity to engage students in mindful expectation-setting.  However, for many education abroad offices, the limited time in which these kinds of pre-departure activities might unfold is consumed by the many practical and necessary topics that they are obligated to cover, such as travel preparedness, health and safety, and logistical concerns.  Thinking back to my own pre-departure orientation as a student, I recall a large-format group orientation, set in a lecture hall, with most of the engagement with presenters driven by the overzealous parents and family members in the audience.  In retrospect, this setting was not particularly conducive to fostering discussions that might have helped me and my peers reflect on our goals and expectations for the experience that awaited us.

Recommendation #3 – Increasingly, new and innovative program models feature pre-departure content delivered over weeks or even months in a variety of formats.  Freed-Hardemann University’s Study Abroad office is working toward developing a for-credit pre-departure seminar required of all study abroad participants. models like this allow educators to carry out extensive and well-scaffolded learning activities, which integrate the “nuts and bolts” of travel preparation and administrative checklists with cultural training, academic readings in the host country and culture, and reflection on goals, motives, and expectations (Barber, 2014).  Pre-departure phases intentionally designed to disrupt and destabilize students’ understandings of self and Other lay essential groundwork not only for a safe and successful experience abroad, but also a transformative learning experience.


Institutions and practitioners involved in global and experiential education, whether through education abroad or other forms of engaged learning, must be cognizant of pressures, both internal and external, that may work against the student-centered approaches we use and in turn the kinds of deep, dispositional learning outcomes we seek.  Some of these pressures are difficult to reconcile with our own motives and desires as educators, and as committed partners to community-based organizations both at home and abroad.  While there is much we must contend with, I am optimistic that there is also much we can change, particularly in the way of conditioning students for the kinds of meaningful, engaged learning we want them to achieve.  But to do this, we must be willing to turn a critical and mindful eye toward our own beliefs and practices and not be afraid to question and change them, just as we would ask our own students to do.


  1. Kolb, David.  Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. (1984, 2015); Vande Berg, Michael, R. Michael Paige, and Kris Hemming Lou, eds.  Student Learning Abroad: What Our Students Are Learning, What They’re Not, and What We Can Do About It (2012).
  2. Deresiewicz, William.  Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of American Elite and the way to a Meaningful Life (2015), 64-70; on public universities, see Christopher Newfield, Unmaking the Public University (2008) and Nancy Folbre, Saving State U (2010); on effects on academic learning outcomes, see Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift (2011).
  3. Bass, Randall.  “Formation by Design”.  Presented at TEDxGeorgetown, November 19, 2014.
  4. Zemach-Bersin, Talya.  “Selling the World: Study Abroad Marketing and the Privatization of Global Citizenship,” in The Handbook of Practice and Research in Study Abroad: Higher Education and the Quest for Global Citizenship, Ed. Ross Lewin (2009), 303-320.
  5. Hartman, Eric.  “Fair trade learning: A framework for ethical global partnerships,” in International Service Learning: Engaging Host Communities, Ed. M.A. Larsen (2015), 215-234.
  6. Barber, Joshua. “Designing Pre-Departure Orientation as a For-Credit Academic Seminar: Curriculum and Content” (2014). SIT Capstone Collection. Paper 2718.

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