The 2015 edition of the University of Texas at Austin’s Creating Access to Global Education Symposium, which took place on September 25, 2015, focused on opening up student access across Latin America. While difficult to believe, the most recent Open Doors Report for the 2012-13 academic year indicates that 26,281 students from U.S. institutions of higher education studied abroad in Spain alone, while only 8,701 more (34,882) studied abroad in the entirety of Spanish-speaking Latin America. These numbers seem illogical, given the proximity of some Latin American destinations to the United States, the cost-efficiency of both travel to and cost of living in many Latin American destinations, as well as the usefulness of Latin American Spanish in the United States. The driving idea behind this conference was that opening up study abroad in Latin America may open up doors to students who would otherwise not be able to study abroad.
With these thoughts in mind, study abroad practitioners spent the day discussing strategies that they could implement to increase student participation in study abroad programs to Latin America. The first session of the conference focused specifically on Mexico. Factors mentioned that potentially contribute to low enrollment in study abroad programs in Mexico included travel warnings issued by certain states, students’ awareness (or lack thereof) of current events in Mexico, and students’ impression that a higher Spanish proficiency level was required to study in Mexico rather than in Spain. As educators, it is important that we provide students with the opportunity to talk about their concerns about the risks of traveling to Latin America and also that we provide students with accurate information, appropriate advice, useful connections, and enough cultural background to make travel to places like Mexico real options.
Following a session during which students with experience in Latin America (both U.S. students and Latin American students) reported back on their experiences with study abroad, Margaret Hug, Coordinator for the U.S. State Department’s 100,000 Strong in the Americas initiative, gave the keynote lecture. This initiative combines private funds with public know-how to open up opportunities for U.S. institutions of higher education to create connections with Latin America. Faculty members and study abroad professionals can apply for grants to fund joint partnership educational initiatives with corresponding Latin American institutions.
The day culminated in two parallel sessions in which speakers discussed topics such as supporting DACA students who wish to study abroad, identifying factors that lead students to choose to study abroad in Spain rather than Latin America, strategies for increasing enrollment in study abroad programs to Latin America, providing financial support for Latin American students who wish to study in the United States, and creating study abroad programs in Latin America.
As educators, it is extremely important that we provide students with the opportunity to consider study abroad destinations that are not among the most popular. These opportunities will provide students with the unique experiences that they seek as well as individual opportunities to learn and grow in new and exciting ways. A consideration of alternative destinations may also open up study abroad to students who otherwise would not be able to take advantage of this unique opportunity.