Field study, study abroad, semester abroad all conjure images of travel and being away from mundane educational opportunities. Who wouldn’t want to savor independence, travel to exotic and far lands, learn a language and dive into distant cultures?! How about gaining first-hand knowledge of classical literature, music and arts in Austria, explore multicultural Paris, dip into music and dance in Haiti, explore the colonial city of Quito, Ecuador and so on? Temptations! And why not succumb to them when there is the promise of immersive learning outside of classrooms?
Benefits of study abroad programs
It is no wonder that study abroad programs for graduate and undergraduate syllabi find profuse mentions in university literature. To quote from Terra Dotta’s survey of 140 colleges in the US, a majority (72%) of students said they want to study abroad in 2022 citing strengthening of their language skills (30%) and preparing for the global workforce (24%) as the primary reasons. Higher-ed leaders are consistently working on strategic global engagement. Many leaders have their eyes on increasing diversity and inclusion on campuses and global education supports inclusive campus experiences. These in turn attract students and their families especially in this heightened global milieu that requires becoming more culturally and globally aware. There are the obvious benefits for students who hope to become cultural diplomats, expand academic, personal and professional horizons.
As a possible merging of theory and practice, fieldwork makes the student think deeply about academics and the field. Some in-field options take shape in internships which ideally mean that students are placed with organizations (which becomes their field) and they learn by doing hands-on work in communities. Others take them to academic set ups with flexible learning options and still others work in communities.
Tradition of field study
Let’s take a look at the historical traditions of fieldwork. Conventionally, conducting fieldwork is central to disciplines such as Anthropology and Sociology and Social Work for the inquiry of human life. Through doing fieldwork the researcher travels/visits the place of investigation for long periods of time to observe, participate and become remarkably aware of people and their surroundings, lifestyles and actions. Through the years many advances were made that established serious methodologies of conducting field studies or field work.
Today fieldwork is not restricted to these disciplines. Political Science, Economics also study human behavior in social settings with each discipline borrowing from the other. The benefits of interdisciplinary approaches, intersectionality and the imperatives of traveling between them all make it a very rich process, albeit challenging. Each field study implies prolonged study but the expectation is also to immerse oneself in what Allaine Cerwonka and Liisa Malkki (2007) call “imponderables of everyday life.” The unpredictability in field situations makes for confusing moments highlighted by Cerwonka as “opaque space”. Many Anthropologists and Sociologists have in detail defined grappling with realities in the field as transformative. It is through navigating this opaque space the fieldworker learns to develop skills on site, improvise and stay focused on the research despite the plethora of unpredictable events that one might be confronted by.
Nevertheless, fieldwork is a rigorous process that involves withdrawing from familiar settings, deep engagement with the community followed by return to normal life – all of which requires heightened flexibility to question and reformulate ways of understanding the world.
With respect to field studies, some of the burning questions are about the offerings for students, learning outcomes related to academic knowledge, language skills, and intercultural competence. Educational institutions see value in study abroad programs and with increased interest, it is an important component of overall education. Are students learning as much as is expected in short term study periods? Mark Salisbury contends that some institutions do take care to provide and design potential learning opportunities where priority is placed on pushing students outside of their comfort zones. This allows students to interact with locals and pick up some cross-cultural skills.
This begs the question, is there continuity of experience? A good place to look for the effect of study abroad experiences is in the experiences students have after the program is over. Do students return feeling like they learned a lot, or that they left a mark or that they felt incomplete? The answer could be any or all of those. Studies have proven that student experience is more fulfilling where faculty is involved and a carefully designed, guided reflection and mentoring has preceded the study followed by thoughtful debriefing. Because field study is compacted, the opaqueness, if you will, is also fast-tracked. The experiences need to be deconstructed in a classroom setting so that returning to a normal life is a richer, meaningful process.
Is enough been done to ensure that all students – including students from minority backgrounds are able to experience studying abroad? According to 2020 Open Doors data, 70 percent of study abroad students were White, 5.5 percent were African-American, 8.6 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, 10.6 percent Hispanic, 4.8 percent multi-racial and 0.5 percent American Indian. Many universities work with the AIFS program by allowing students to use their financial aid to participate. This way, it is possible for study abroad program fees and expenses to be transferred through the school’s business or financial aid office. Other initiatives target minority serving universities and enhance access to study abroad programs through information availability, use of federal financial aid, increased training of faculty so they may lead programs focused on minorities. More work in this area is warranted since the numbers remain skewed in favor of “white” students.
In defense of the “experiential”
Overall, education institutions have moved away from the paradigmatic traditions of fieldwork and provide snapshots of experience to students. The focus is on logistics and placement. These snapshots are highly in demand despite falling short of the extended field experience that results in an ethnography or another continued form of engagement.
And then with exigencies like the pandemic, how much are universities able to curate field studies without physically traveling to a location? This is not to say that field studies cannot be conducted in one’s own surroundings but the lure of “going away” implies traveling to a destination. Significant safety concerns and government mandates connected to the COVID-19 pandemic limited students’ ability to accrue on-site field hours. The safety of students has been the highest as well as communities within the placement agencies.
In many instances virtual projects have replaced in-person research projects. Interviews, surveys, questionnaires, focus group discussions have been possible through online methods. But for many as in other vocations, the human interaction piece is missing. How best can we work with a situation which is complex due to the pandemic since the experiential component is crucial and irreplaceable?
It may be possible to infuse critical thinking and reflection through greater faculty intervention so that students are not just curious individuals but are also accountable to evidence-based immersive learning. This will allow students to determine the varied intercultural encounters on site and define them within the research framework. In the end, these short studies are aimed at tangible results in the form of achieving favorable academic, personal, professional outcomes for the students. As educational institutions strategize, maybe a suggestion is to plan for those students who are less likely to apply for study abroad programs such as minorities and the economically challenged. And finally, aside from the developing partnerships abroad, and in the interest of continued relationship with the field, can we perhaps find a medium between the academic paradigms and local action?
Cerwonka, A and Malkki, Lisa (2007) Improvising Theory: Process and Temporality in Ethnographic Fieldwork, University of Chicago Press, 2007
Wong, David. E (Fall 2015) Beyond “It was Great”? Not so Fast! The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad Volume XXVI; https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1084545.pdf
Open Doors, Profile of US Study Abroad Students; https://opendoorsdata.org/data/us-study-abroad/student-profile/
NPR, Talk of the Nation; “Study Abroad: Is it really worth it?” August 2012; https://www.npr.org/transcripts/158501278 (accessed on July 25, 2022)
Cision, PRWeb (June 1, 2022); “ Terra Dotta’s “The State of Globalization in Higher Education” Survey Spotlights the Revival and Acceleration of Global Engagement on Campus https://www.prweb.com/releases/terra_dottas_the_state_of_globalization_in_higher_education_survey_spotlights_the_revival_and_acceleration_of_global_engagement_on_campus/prweb18710734.htm (accessed on July 25, 2022)