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Colleges urged to take advantage of study abroad

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(From left) Andre Lewis, deputy assistant secretary of education; Alina Romanowski, deputy assistant secretary of academic programs; and Ann Stock, assistant secretary of state. (Photo: Ellie Ashford)

​There are a wealth of study abroad opportunities for community college students, but not enough students are taking advantage of them.

The U.S. State Department and U.S. Education Department want to change that. Ann Stock, assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs, and Andre Lewis, deputy assistant secretary of education for international education, told community college leaders at a State Department briefing Feb. 16 about some of the programs available to community colleges, including the new 100,000 Strong Initiative to encourage study in China.

“Community college students may be precisely the students who would benefit most from study abroad,” said Stock, noting that community college students who have studied abroad do better academically and have higher completion rates.

Yet only 3 percent of students who take part in study abroad programs are from community colleges, she said. Many community college students don’t know about study abroad scholarships available to them and don’t realize that some programs last just a couple of weeks, which make them more palatable to students with jobs or families.

“Even a small exposure to another culture can have a huge benefit,” Lewis said.

A Strong initiative

The 100,000 Strong initiative, announced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last May in Beijing, is well suited to prepare community college students for a global economy in which China is a major player, Stock said. The initiative builds on President Barack Obama’s pledge to dramatically increase the number and diversity of U.S. students studying in China by setting a goal of having 100,000 U.S. students in China in the next four years.

But unlike other international exchange programs, 100,000 Strong will rely entirely on private sector financial support. The total cost of the effort is estimated to be at least $68 million.

Funds will flow directly from a corporation to an educational institution of its choice, said Carola McGiffert, director of the 100,000 Strong initiative. For example, Atlanta-based Coca Cola has pledged $1 million to community colleges in Georgia. So far, companies have donated more than $3 million, she said.

The initiative seeks to correct an “imbalance in knowledge,” according to officials. There are 10 times as many Chinese students in U.S. schools as American students in China, and 600 times more Chinese studying English as Americans learning Mandarin.
Stock also urged community colleges to participate in other international exchange programs supported by the State Department, including:

  • The Gilman scholarship program, which helps Pell Grant recipients study abroad for four weeks to a full year. The State Department expects to award more than 2,300 scholarships in 2010-11. Since the program started in 2001, 6,500 scholarships have been awarded to students in more than 850 colleges, many of them minorities.

About 12 percent of Gilman scholarship recipients are community college students, Stock said.

“That’s admirable, but it’s not enough,” she added.

Since the program started in 2007, nearly 1,400 students have received scholarships to attend U.S. community colleges.

Bringing balance

Lewis, who oversees 14 international education and foreign language programs with a combined budget of $126 million, said that as a former community college student himself, he has a personal interest in giving community college students a priority in study abroad programs. He wants to “raise all the valleys [like community colleges] up to the peaks [the Harvards and UCLAs] in terms of who gets our money,” he said.

This spring, the department will sponsor four to six workshops around the country to help community colleges and smaller colleges apply for study abroad programs.

“If the U.S. workforce is going to be economically competitive, we have the obligation to prepare students to compete globally,” and community college presidents and trustees “have an enormous responsibility to make study abroad a priority,” said Bonnie Bissonette, associate dean of business and international education at Northcentral Technical College in Wisconsin.

Colleges would be more likely to get funding and attract students if they promote study abroad options that are “occupationally specific,” Bissonette said. She urged presidents to “redefine community for your learners” and add the words “global” or “international” to the college mission statement.

Workforce benefits

When pitching these programs to trustees and taxpayers, presidents should stress the value of workforce competitiveness and form partnerships with corporations to create internships aboard, she added.

Bunker Hill Community College (Massachusetts) sends 40 students abroad every year, and that is “a life changing experience for them,” said Vilma Tafawa, director of the college’s International Center.

Western Nebraska Community College hasn’t had a study aboard program before, mainly because it’s in a rural area and hasn’t had the resources, said trustee Tom Perkins. But he wants to start one.

“Rural Nebraska needs to have a connection with the rest of the world,” Perkins said.

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