President David Skorton has issued a goal that no fewer than 50 percent of undergraduates will have an international experience — defined as studying, holding an internship or going on a service trip in a foreign country –– by the time they graduate. We commend President Skorton for recognizing the valuable educational experience that students can gain from going abroad. However, the administration should strive to maximize the quality of study abroad experiences, not just the quantity of them.
Currently, 27 percent of Cornellians go abroad. Many Cornellians spend their time abroad enriching their understanding of foreign cultures, perfecting their ability to speak a foreign language or studying at an institution that offers programs Cornell does not. In several of Cornell’s colleges, however, the requirements are less stringent and do not require those studying abroad to have any knowledge of the language of the place where they are studying. These students will spend time in the company of Americans without fully experiencing the culture of the location in which they are studying, using their time abroad more as a vacation than as a learning experience.
Instead of working to increase the number of students studying abroad, the administration should strongly consider altering the requirements of those studying abroad to make students’ experiences more meaningful. One suggestion is to add a language requirement for study abroad across all of the colleges. In order to make the abroad experience more enriching, students could engage in meaningful research or work on a community service project. This will not only broaden the potential for good that these students can perform, but it will also open their eyes to problems around the world. Visiting cultural landmarks is not the beginning or the end of a cultural learning experience abroad.
Finally, we believe that the administration should remember that not all students are truly given the opportunity to study abroad. Cornell offers financial aid opportunities and grants to make going abroad as affordable as possible. Yet, the fact remains that many countries have high costs of living that make abroad trips cost-prohibitive for some. The push to increase the number of students with international experiences should come with a significant financial commitment to make these experiences accessible to all Cornellians.
We commend President Skorton’s goals, but we know that not all international experiences are alike. The administration should do its best to ensure that Cornellians’ experiences abroad are as meaningful and constructive as possible and equally accessible to all students.