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The Promise of Passports

By Gregg Sangillo

American University is among the top institutions for study abroad according to the recent

American University students are eager to explore every corner of the globe. AU sends a high percentage of students overseas, according to a review of recently released data from the Institute of International Education (IIE).

The IIE’s comprehensive Open Doors report, publicized at a November press briefing with the State Department, tracks the movement of students into and out of the United States. In certain categories, AU is one of the top two institutions in the nation for study abroad.

“AU has become known for having a very strong set of study abroad programs. And it is very much a part of the culture here,” says Sara Dumont, director of AU Abroad.

She adds that when she started as director of the office in 2003, AU’s study abroad programs weren’t even present in the Open Doors’ reports comparing universities. “We have gone up steadily.”

Notable Numbers

AU excelled in several categories measured by the recent Open Doors report (based on 2011-2012 data). With 72.4% of its undergraduates participating in some form of study abroad, AU rated second among all doctorate institutions. Also compared with other doctorate institutions, AU finished second for number of students—234—who took part in year-long study abroad programs.

“That’s something that I’m most proud of because we feel, here at AU, that it’s best if students can have profound experiences abroad—really meaningful, deep experiences, not to just go abroad for a couple of weeks,” Dumont says. “Across the U.S., very few students actually study abroad for a full year.”

AU ranked 12th among all doctorate institutions for number of students participating in semester-long study abroad programs.

The Institute of International Education is a non-profit organization that manages scholarships, conducts research, and protects academic freedom.  

Keeping Doors Open

AU officials have created an environment conducive to studying abroad. This includes ensuring that most credits are transferrable.

“I think one reason we do have such a high level of participation is that our students go abroad, and they get courses that count towards their majors and minors and other graduation requirements,” says Dumont.

The university has also tried to be a magnet for international students and faculty. The International Student & Scholar Services (ISSS) office helps foreign students adapt to academic and social life at AU. ISSS staffers provide advice on personal, financial, employment, and immigration matters.

“In a way, we are trying to become a home away from home for them,” says Senem Bakar, ISSS interim director. “These students have specific needs.”

Indeed, international students living in the U.S. sometimes struggle to get acclimated to an entirely different culture. Yet AU study abroad vets and international students on campus can often relate to each other. “If nothing else, when AU study abroad students are out there they do have experiences, similar to our students coming here from all over the world. And that creates empathy,” Bakar says.

Bakar was first hired by the university in 1992 to recruit international students. In recent years, she’s seen an uptick in undergraduate students coming to AU from East Asia and Africa.

Lasting Impressions

Study abroad proponents emphasize how it broadens your worldview and prepares you for life after college. Fanta Aw is assistant vice president of campus life and also a professorial lecturer in the School of International Service. She says students often describe a “shift in perspective” after studying overseas.

“Many of the students will say when they read the newspaper, when they come across events happening elsewhere in the world, they no longer see it as a dot on the map,” she says. “They clearly begin to see the interconnections.”

This also exposes students to diversity, which can prove valuable in the working world. “They begin to understand that whatever career they end up choosing, chances are that they’re going to interact with people who are different from themselves,” Aw says. “How they’re able to navigate that becomes critically important.”

Studying abroad also has a way of strengthening your resolve. Once you’ve slept in a hostel in an unfamiliar city thousands of miles from home, you’re more prepared for the curveballs life throws you.

“They learn about themselves, and they learn about a very different living environment. And these are really important skills that they can take to everything they do—no matter where they do it—in their future lives,” Dumont says.