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Posted: June 08, 2009

Study abroad programs benefit businesses and Colorado

Why the Sen. Paul Simon Study Abroad Foundation Act matters

Cynthia Banks

Even in this most challenging of economic climates, students in Colorado and across the nation continue to place study abroad on their priority lists. At the same time, higher education institutions increasingly are weaving international education into the fabric of their curricula rather than offering it only as an extracurricular adornment to the cap, gown and diploma.

But much still needs to happen to make study abroad a reality for most students. In fact, despite an upward trend in study abroad over the last decade, only about 1 percent of U.S. undergraduates are able to earn academic credit overseas.

That’s why it is so interesting that in the midst of this time of great economic stress, shrinking campus budgets and greater financial burdens on the backs of students and their families, congressional leaders have in their hands the single greatest piece of legislation ever written to support U.S. study abroad programs.

It is called the Sen. Paul Simon Study Abroad Foundation Act of 2009.

Named after the late Democratic senator, who believed a more internationally educated citizenry would “lift our vision and responsiveness to the rest of the world,” the Simon Act seeks a increase the number of undergraduates studying abroad for academic credit to 1 million a year within the decade.

The bill is now on the move in the Congress.

Introduced in February in the U.S. Senate, it now has 32 co-sponsors, including Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., who is a former superintendent of Denver Public Schools. In mid-May, the Simon Act was introduced into the House of Representatives as part of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act.

The legislation, which is endorsed by more than 40 higher education and international exchange organizations, calls for $80 million in grants to institutions to expand opportunities for underrepresented students, such as minority, economically disadvantaged and first-generation college students. It also increases students going to non-traditional destinations and developing countries.

Such legislation might be considered a tough sell at a time when government deficits are reaching record levels. Even so, investments in education historically have provided great long-term dividends in the form of more educated workers and a more globally competitive business sector.
   
Last year, the bill passed the House with unanimous support and was one step short of passage in the Senate, where its supporters included then-senators President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

For the field of international education, which includes campus study abroad offices and independent program providers, the Simon initiative and President Obama’s frequent mentions of the importance of international student exchange make it a very exciting time.

The business community also recognizes study abroad is a powerful way to produce globally engaged students who, once they return home, bear out the benefits of their international experience in their educational paths, career contributions and civic involvement.

Far from a fuzzy concept, study abroad has measurable effects, as evidenced by recent research by the University of Minnesota.

Called “SAGE – Beyond Immediate Impact: Study Abroad for Global Engagement,” the study of 6,391 former study abroad participants from 22 U.S. colleges, universities and education abroad providers nationwide showed overwhelmingly that the study abroad experience was among the most influential of participants’ lives.

It also demonstrated how study abroad influenced to “a large” or “some” degree individuals’ voluntary simplicity, social entrepreneurship, civic engagement, education decisions, knowledge production and occupation/career choice.
   
The results are exciting because they show how the effects of studying abroad stay with students as they mature and integrate what they’ve learned into work and family lives.

In Colorado, growth and forward momentum in international education are clearly evident, with trends mimicking what’s gone on nationally. Even so, just 1.2 percent of the 312,907 students enrolled in degree-granting institutions in Colorado in 2006-2007 studied abroad, according to the National Center for Education Statistics and the 2008 “Open Doors” report by the Institute of International Education.
   
Our state continues to welcome students from other countries and benefit economically from their presence on our campuses. We also continue to send into the world undergraduates whose adventurous upbringings make them explorers of other countries, languages and cultures and engaging ambassadors for their own country.
   
With that in mind, Colorado’s universities, colleges, businesses and government leaders alike have much to gain in supporting international education initiatives.

You can make you thoughts known to your Congressional leaders by visiting the 10,000-member Association of International Educators' “Take Action” center.

In doing so, you are encouraging not only the development of globally competitive workers but also the creation of world-aware citizens for the benefit of their own communities.

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Cynthia Banks is founder and executive director of AustraLearn / AsiaLearn / EuroLearn – Educational Programs of GlobaLinks LLC, a Westminster, Colo.-based organization with an 19-year history of sending more than 20,000 to study abroad in Australia, New Zealand, the South Pacific, Asia and Europe. Reach Cynthia at cbanks@globalinksabroad.org or learn more about GlobaLinks programs by calling 303-446-2214 or visiting www.australearn.org, www.asialearn.org, or www.eurolearn.org.   

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