Are We Promoting Study Abroad as Tourism?

Recently, a colleague asked me, in reference to students who had already traveled widely – children of expatriate businesspeople; religious students who had completed missionary trips – “How do you convince them to study abroad?”

Similarly, some students offhandedly tell me, when I ask them why they don’t study abroad, “I want to travel, but maybe I’ll do it later when I have enough money.”

At the heart of those statements lies one assumption: That there is no difference between other types of travel and study abroad. That assumption is understandable. It is also false.

What, in fact, is the difference between other types of travel and study abroad?

There are many answers. “Academics” comes to mind (after all, “study” is in the name).  So does helping “students realize that different cultures have different expectations and value”; in 2006, John Barbour, a professor of religion at St. Olaf College, wrote poignantly about this in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

To wrestle with the moral ambiguity of tourism — and of our educational programs — is vitally important. One outcome of traveling should be to develop an uneasy conscience and a critical self-consciousness about our practices when we go abroad.”

Yet the field of study abroad continues to resemble the field of tourism. Tonight, I opened Instagram and searched for university study abroad offices. I also searched for study abroad program providers. What I found: they were indistinguishable. Where was the necessary wrestling with “moral ambiguity of tourism”?

Try it yourself. Type “study abroad” into an image search. Look up #studyabroad on Facebook and Instagram. What will you see? Photos of landscapes, architecture, and students centered photogenically, alone or in groups.

I looked again at the literature: the June 2016 issue of academic journal Discourse & Communication featured an article by Kristen Michelson and  José Aldemar Alvarez Valencia, titled “Study Abroad: Tourism or education? A multimodal social semiotic analysis of institutional discourses of a promotional website.” Its findings were unsurprising:

Discourses of tourism prevail over discourses of education, and the representations enacted on the institutional website are mirrored in the discursive practices of students.”

As study abroad fair season resumes and the fall term hums into action, what are we telling our students about study abroad? Are we using images and discourses of tourism or of education?

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(And is this a happy medium?)

2 thoughts on “Are We Promoting Study Abroad as Tourism?

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