In most ways my time studying abroad in Japan has been very positive. But while Stanford has eliminated the physical barrier for lower-income individuals to study abroad, the expensive spending culture prevalent in many study abroad programs remains in Stanford’s. Simple remedies do exist that could mitigate this, though.
At other schools, study abroad can be much more expensive than studying on campus. Living can cost more, people eat out for meals more frequently and then there are costs incurred by commuting to class. As a result, study abroad often has a reputation of elitism associated with it: Rich individuals go abroad for a term to essentially take a vacation for a semester, traveling around Europe with a much lighter course load.
I’ve personally observed many students who studied abroad for a full year and came back no better at the foreign language they went abroad to learn than before they left — quite counter to the purpose of going abroad. Granted, it might be more difficult to become fluent in a language while studying these days since that English is more common abroad, but the result is still not what one should expect.
This is in stark contrast with Stanford’s Bing Overseas Studies Program (BOSP). Stanford’s program, thanks in large part to the generosity of Peter and Helen Bing, allows students who want to study abroad to simply pay their normal tuition to Stanford. This means that students on financial aid pay the same amount to study abroad as they would to study on campus. Furthermore, housing and food fees tend to be cheaper abroad than on campus, a benefit of not being on the meal plan. Including the price of my airfare to and from Japan, I actually spend less money for school during my term abroad in Kyoto than I would at Stanford. There are many reasons that about 50 percent of each Stanford graduating class studies abroad (and the percentage is still growing), but one of them is certainly the economic accessibility of BOSP.
While Stanford makes study abroad less expensive for low-income students, the history of study abroad and the culture associated with it from other schools still pressures students to spend. For example, while fairly cheap, travel costs in Kyoto, Japan — where I study — add up quickly. If one wants to go to a shrine (a key and wonderful feature of Kyoto’s culture that makes it the home of many World Heritage Sites), a round trip usually costs $5 to $10, entrance fees are about the same and lunch and dinner will add another $15 or so. Cumulatively, you might spend $25 in a day. Although the sights are all worth it, when you live in a city with hundreds of places worth seeing, spending around $20 a day can become $200 in less than a month — and this is just for the essential parts of study abroad. If you add in drinking parties, travel to nearby cities with more history and more to see or even just essential costs like buying a phone for emergencies, the cost goes up even more.
This need to travel certainly exists in other programs, too. While one may be in Paris, you cannot simply stay in Paris and not go on weekend trips to see Marseilles, Bordeaux, Madrid, Berlin and London, as well as club in each of those cities while you are near them. I am speaking a bit hyperbolically, but this sentiment does exist for many students studying abroad. This is where coming from a poorer background can mean having to say no to trips and activities with everyone else. It is an experience that can be isolating. In part, I believe this to be the legacy of programs that have historically been for wealthy individuals at a university that still does (and will into the unforeseeable future) have a socio-economic disparity, with a disproportionate amount of students coming to Stanford from rich backgrounds.
How can Stanford combat this? One major way is to shift more of the focus of the study abroad programs onto the host cities themselves. I think Kyoto already does this quite well: It features classes about Japanese culture, religion and politics that all take field trips in Kyoto and occasional trips to nearby cities (all of which are paid for by the program). To further strengthen this idea, travel passes for transportation within the city could drastically increase intra-city travel: There are so many sights to see in Florence itself, for example, and it seems silly to travel hundreds of miles to see a famous statue when there are marvelous works that you have yet to see in your host city. Programs might also work to emphasize the great activities worth doing locally and help organize student trips, allowing people to better get to know each other as well.
Finally, if the program in Kyoto is any testament, Stanford does a fantastic job of selecting host families that actually care about and want to get to know their students. Traveling makes this quite difficult, and being a classic tourist limits one’s ability to advance one’s language acquisition. There is certainly value in getting to know an area well, and becoming close friends with people abroad is a great joy.
These ideas and goals are already advanced by BOSP to a certain extent, but could be pursued a bit more strongly. Economic disparities cannot be neutralized overnight, but they certainly should not characterize and define the study abroad experience. Adjusting BOSP could help students have an even better experience abroad while also breaking down some of the economic barriers that still exist.
Contact Joe Troderman at jtrod93 “at” stanford.edu.