You’ve probably heard a lot about internationalization, globalization, but have you heard about commercialiZATION? That’s right, the commercialization of study abroad. We all know what it is, but we don’t talk about it. As you can probably tell from the subject of this post, my hope is to open a discussion on how it impacts education.
I started working in the field around the year 2000, after spending four years in the Peace Corps, Cameroon and Ecuador, and finishing my MA degree in Michigan. I spent four years as a Study Abroad Coordinator at Western Michigan University and eight years as the Study Abroad Director at Eastern Illinois University. It’s amazing how much has changed; I feel old and cannot imagine what it must be like for people who started working in the 80s or 90s, or even before.
I chose a study-abroad career because I was transformed by my own international experiences, and I believe in the transformative international education process. But how many of our students are choosing among a whole lot of programs without a great deal of thoughtand coming home NOT transformed or enlightened in the ways that we were? I had also graduated with an individualized major, worked in challenge and adventure education throughout college, and was a martial arts and self-defense instructor for many years, so maybe my perspective has been skewed.
Now I’m “retired” so to speak, not retired in the sense that I have left the field, but I have left administration and am in transition, a big one. My family and I are relocating to Europe this summer, and there are many things to do in getting ready. While I plan to continue working in education abroad, it will be on the writing, publishing, and consulting end of things, which is what I enjoy the most and why I’m reaching out
now. In Italy, we plan to launch an international wellness institute, with spiritual elements, for Baby Boomers and Generation X outside of the higher education sector. So I should not be in competition with anyone who may be reading this post and have no ulterior motive for writing it other than genuine communication and connection.
Throughout my career, one of my aims has been to lessen the negative effects of commercialization in the field. This is evident from the articles I wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education a few years back, and maybe it’s been more of a conviction than a goal. I’m not saying that commercialization is a bad thing, because it has brought innovation and much development to the field. It’s here to stay, and there’s nothing anyone can do to change this. But in a broad general sense, it has
lightened our perspective of education and created much greater competition among colleagues. This competition caters to the “customer” in students (and study abroad offices) more than to the “learner.” I hesitate to say this, but many of us count bodies, not minds.
One of my thoughts for managing commercialization and helping in small ways to keep “education” on the forefront of my agenda was to try to increase transparency in the field, for us and our students. If I recall correctly, my frustration started because we had some faculty-led programs which were stellar in all respects, but we also had some where students knew they could get an easy “A” and a nice vacation with a hefty program fee that was covered by financial aid. As a study abroad administrator, and dealing with political issues at my institution, it wasn’t always easy to spell out these frustrations in the advising process, or to differentiate from tourism and education. The same thing applied to some of our other program types and partnerships, but separating my personal and professional opinion from the student advising process was necessary to move effectively between students, staff, faculty, and higher administration.
I also found over the years that students coming home from international education experiences—especially those who had very meaningful ones—tended to disappear, unless we hired them on. These students were more independent than our other students, so this is understandable, but it was still a shame because they had acquired so much knowledge, that could have helped other students contemplating a study abroad experience, choosing a program, or navigating the preparation process. I’m sure their knowing enlightened grace traveled wherever they did, but unless they started a career in study abroad, it was unfortunately lost to our field, and our field is not easy to break into anymore, either.
So I wanted to find a way to organically increase the information exchange among students, in ways that I as a study abroad administrator just couldn’t do. In the old days, there was a big binder of paper program evaluations in the resource center which students could browse through if they wanted. Later, many students developed their own blogs, but there wasn’t an organization among all these blogs by which we could find particular information other than search engines and following students we randomly discovered. Then came the online program and review directories, but they were not very easy to integrate with approved program lists, our searchable program database, or any commercial study abroad databases, and had a business model that I didn’t feel comfortable with. That said, I decided to develop a different kind of website, with help from colleagues, where providers-schools-students would interconnect transparently and information would grow organically, rather than through big dollars and banners from program providers. This culminated in http://www.studyabroadscout.com, BKA Abroad Scout, which is free to use and does a lot, but that’s another topic for another day.
Today, I have written for one simple reason: to share where I am as a professional, what I’d like to accomplish in the field, and find “like” minds (working non-profits, for-profits, or not working) who want to see study abroad grow more into “education” than “commercialization” and want to help make this happen. To be honest, I’m very busy, too busy, and projects have become too much for one person to manage alone. Moving to Italy to pursue a new way of life and education, I must downsize and simply myself in many ways. I cannot continue with so much on my plate, so I am looking for the right minds and people who want to help in this goal, or conviction I laid out here, who are interested in success in the right way, through networking and collaboration, not at the sacrifice of education.
Have a great day, and with any luck—in these times which pull us in so many different directions—you will be inspired to comment on this post and share your views.