The Positive Impact of Study Abroad

The Positive Impact of Study Abroad

The second 1vyG conference at Harvard University on February 19-21 included a session on the positive impact of study abroad for first generation/low-income students. It’s about time! There have always been anecdotes touting the benefits of study abroad experiences for diverse students. What we need is more research to measure impact among students who are the first in their families to attend college.

I am a first generation student with firsthand knowledge of impact. My study abroad experiences in the Czech Republic and Russia changed my life. While my own reflections are anecdotal, I combined personal experience and imagination with research findings to establish the Knowledge Without Borders Study Abroad Scholarship. The scholarship currently benefits first generation/low-income students at colleges in New York and Wisconsin. We are launching a scholarship program at the University of Minnesota this spring.

I combined my own experience and imagination with research findings on positive impact to establish the Knowledge Without Borders Study Abroad Scholarship.

Even when first generation/low-income students can make use of financial aid for study abroad, they often come up short. Expenses like airfares, visas, even extra funds for weekend excursions, are often not covered by college financial aid. Without money for these “extras,” many first generation/low-income students miss out on a potentially pivotal life experience. The Knowledge Without Borders scholarship fills the gap between financial aid and real life expenses.

There has been some powerful research on the positive impact of study abroad for first gens during the past decade. The University of Georgia state-wide system, for example, completed a decade long randomized controlled study, the GLOSSARI Project, to determine who benefited from study abroad experiences. The research showed “positive impacts” of study abroad among the 19,109 student experimental group as compared to the 17,903 student control group. The study saw particular gains among African American students. In fact, African Americans in the experimental group had a 31.2 percent higher four-year graduation rate than their counterparts in the control group.

Study abroad experiences have a positive impact on student lives. (Photo taken in Istanbul, Turkey)

Study abroad experiences have a positive impact on student lives. (Students in Istanbul, Turkey)

The study also showed positive academic outcomes among students at risk, defined as those with the lowest SAT scores. “The conventional wisdom is that students who are at risk should be discouraged from studying abroad,” noted Professor Don Rubin, the research director of the project. But the study showed that studying abroad can actually “enhance the success of college students who are at risk.” That’s one reason why Knowledge Without Borders supports study abroad opportunities for first generation/low-income students.

Study abroad becomes increasingly important as more and more borders are crossed physically and digitally. Marlene M. Johnson, executive director and CEO of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, emphasizes the need for “policies that will increase the number and diversity of U.S. students who study abroad.”

Johnson’s focus on diversity among study abroad students in not a new idea. More than 50 years ago the Princeton Cooperative School Program (1964-1976), an early version of the Upward Bound project, provided a small number of students the opportunity to study abroad. The aim of the project was to provide “disadvantaged high school students” with the academic and social preparation they needed to attend “first-rate colleges and universities,” which included study abroad experiences. The Princeton program partnered with the Experiment for International Living to give students opportunities to study in Latin America and Europe. The American Friends Service Committee sent students to Russia.

The first generation low-income students who attended the 1vyG conference at Harvard are the direct descendants of the students who participated in the Princeton Cooperative School Program some fifty years ago. Educators then saw the positive impact of study abroad to change lives. It is time to continue to produce solid research that underlines the positive impact of study abroad for today’s first generation/low income students. The Knowledge Without Borders Study Abroad Scholarship is one small step in that direction.


Karen Collias

My name is Karen Collias and I founded Knowledge Without Borders™ to infuse creativity and innovation into the most salient educational issues affecting global contemporary society. I attribute my enthusiasm to cross the borders of traditional knowledge domains to the multi-disciplinary nature of my education and professional experience. The first in my family to go to college, I have a Ph.D. from Columbia University. My professional experience focuses on interdisciplinary research, teaching, and strategic thinking at a variety of institutions, including Princeton University, the Smithsonian Institution, and the U.S. Department of State. I currently am crossing borders to write about creativity and innovation in education and philanthropy.



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