Institute of International Education, ugly American
Al Goldis/AP
A student is being advised on a potential trip to New Zealand at Michigan State University's
Office of Study Abroad Resource Center.

More Americans Studying Abroad, Improving Goodwill Toward US

November 18, 2008 03:39 PM
by Shannon Firth
Will the increase of U.S. students studying abroad help us shed the image of the ugly American and improve relations with our foreign adversaries?

More Students Study Abroad in Diverse Locations

According to USA Today, which cited a report from the Institute of International Education, the number of American students who study abroad has risen by 8 percent since 2005 and 150 percent since 1997. Though historically most Americans have chosen programs in Europe, and 57 percent of American students still do, more students are branching out into diverse locations. USA Today reported that during the 2006-7 school year, 28 percent more students studied abroad in South Africa, 25.3 percent more in China and 26.2 percent more in Argentina.

According to The New York Times, China is now the fifth most popular choice for Americans studying abroad, after Britain, Italy, Spain and France. The New York Times also reported the increase in Americans studying abroad has been reciprocated with a 20 percent increase in Chinese students studying in America, due to China’s burgeoning economy.

In 2003, an independent task force on education abroad, reflecting on the September 11 attacks, argued that “America’s ignorance of the world is now a national liability.” The task force asked congress to create grants, earmarking 3.5 billion dollars for study abroad programs, in order to drive students towards a better understanding of other cultures and nations.

One member of the task force, U.S. Ambassador to Nepal Julia Chang Bloch, argued in a 2003 lecture that, in addition to finding out why we weren’t more aware of other countries’ resentment toward us, “[w]e need to ask ourselves what we can do about it.” Bloch believes we can move toward eliminating terrorism through foreign exchange programs: “Only face-to-face dialogue can build understanding of cultural values, trust, confidence, networks and collaboration.”
According to USA Today, this summer the former leaders of the 9/11 Commission asked Congress to approve a bill to send 1 million students abroad in the next decade. Unfortunately, the proposal hasn’t garnered universal support. The president of the Institute of International Education told USA Today, “Where will another 500,000 U.S. students go? There is a mismatch in terms of programs and capacity.”

Some universities are already having trouble keeping pace with the demand. Tom Gold, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley told The New York Times that when he began directing the study abroad programs for China in 2000, the school accepted about 97 percent of the students who applied. Now he approves only one in three applications.

Opinion & Analysis: “Dear Ugly American”; How Obama’s election affects Americans abroad

Matt Brattin, a student studying abroad, asks other American students to consider how their behavior shapes foreigners’ opinions of all Americans. Brattin recalls overhearing Americans refusing to engage in even the most basic attempts at a new language, instead “speaking louder and slower English in an attempt to communicate with the locals.” He urges these students to strive for a better second impression: “[N]ext time ….behave yourself. Because you never know who is watching, or listening, or cringing as a result of your actions.”

A blogger from San Francisco, known as That One Girl, was living in Paris shortly after Bush’s reelection. She felt ashamed of a country that was widely viewed as “Warmongering, ignorant and discounting the voice of the world around us.” After Obama’s election, she writes that she can now travel abroad “with my head held high, unashamed of my American accent and demeanor, proud that we're living up to our potential.”

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