Educators are thrilled to see more American college students venturing abroad -- perhaps 300,000 this year alone.
Now if they can just get them to venture out of the "American bubbles" that can make the streets of study-abroad hot-spots like London, Barcelona and Florence, Italy almost feel like exclaves of Tuscaloosa or Ann Arbor.
They're trying. After decades of laissez-faire and faith that just breathing the air in foreign lands broadens horizons, American colleges and international programs are pressing students harder to get out of their comfort zones. It's happening in popular destinations as well as more exotic spots in Asia and Africa, where there are fewer Americans, but language and culture barriers make them even more tempted to stick together.
And it's happening online, where one study found Americans on study abroad spent more than four hours per night communicating back home via the likes of Skype, Google Chat and Facebook.
Their tools: less free time, mandatory local internships, signed promises students won't speak English, and even "Amazing Race"-style solo scavenger hunts -- like one where wide-eyed Nebraska students were dropped off their first morning in China in a distant corner of their new city with $5 and instructions to find their way back home alone.
"Unless something is set up that really forces them to get involved in that environment, they really don't," said William Finlay, a University of Georgia sociologist who became so frustrated with the bubble leading trips to Italy that he set up a new, intensive program that takes Georgia students to work in impoverished South African townships.
"We push them to do things that are uncomfortable," Finlay said. "Sometimes they get overwhelmed."
About 260,000 American college students studied abroad in 2008-2009, the years measured in the latest annual survey by the Institute of International Education. That was a small dip from the previous year, likely caused by the economy. Otherwise the numbers have been rising steadily for 25 years and that's expected to resume.
An influential 2005 report by the Abraham Lincoln Commission set a goal of reaching 1 million students a year by 2016-17 and making study abroad virtually as common and simple as enrolling in college.
In short, study abroad is following -- a few decades behind -- changes in higher education itself. Once reserved for a wealthy and adventuresome elite, it's now reaching a wider, more diverse population which often has less travel experience.
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