Student discounts. Travel insurance. Risk assessment. Visa help. International roaming plans. Entire careers are devoted to single aspects of U.S. study abroad students’ overseas lives. With one in ten U.S. undergraduates studying abroad before graduating, the field of study abroad is more embedded than ever into the student experience (IIE 2017).
In the academic world, scholarly literature on study abroad overwhelmingly supports the value of pre-departure training. Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad stands as the primary platform in the U.S. for sharing best practices in education abroad. Practitioners from fields as diverse as anthropology, education, missions, sociology, and theology generally agree on the value of site-specific, introspective pre-departure training.
For Christians, the teachings of Christ bear heavily on our preparations for short-term mission trips and study abroad. Despite our agreement on the importance of pursuing God’s call in our vocations, Christians in higher education abroad do not necessarily agree on the best way to find this call during study abroad. Indeed, a healthy debate now considers important dynamics in education abroad: power relationships, patterns of colonialism and consumption, and the debate over students abroad as tourists or as missionaries. Outcomes depend on preparation. We must carefully tend to pre-departure training to ensure students engage in the critical thinking, conduct personal introspection and align of their motives with those of Christ before going abroad.
“Short-term mission trips and Christian study abroad that focus on experience rather than strategically exposing students to the difficulties inherent in cross-cultural encounter may be providing students with a wonderful experience, but to say that they are intentionally preparing them for sustained cross-cultural engagement is debatable. Christian students afforded the privilege of studying abroad should therefore be encouraged to think of themselves primarily as learners, as disciples of Christ, rather than missionaries during their initial, comparatively short sojourns abroad.” (Stevenson 2018, 103).
The “Sapling Effect”
The “sapling effect” threatens to erase potential life-change after study abroad:
“Students are often bent and challenged while abroad, but this experience does not overwhelmingly translate into sustained contact with linguistic and cultural others upon reentry, nor does it result in significant increases in mobilization for long-term vocational missions involvement after college. . . . Models of Christian study abroad centered on an in-depth knowledge of the host-culture, enthnographic inquiry (Ogden, 2006), and a strong focus on language proficiency stand a much greater chance of allowing students to discern their gifts and possible call for long-term cross-cultural ministry.” (Stevenson 2018, 106-107).
Stevenson (2018) concurs that students on short-term mission trips often lack the linguistic and intercultural communication training needed to achieve lasting missional impacts in a host culture. This does not mean we should jettison the idea of short-term missions altogether, but rather cultivate students’ expectations carefully. Indeed, short-term missions are here to stay (Stevenson 2018). It is often not possible to extend the length of short-term missions due to time, budget and logistical constraints. Outcomes depend on preparation. We must conclude that the best place to intervene to ensure proper outcomes in study abroad and short-term missions is in pre-departure training.
Ethnographic Learning for Study Abroad Programming
Outcomes depend on preparation. If we expect students to develop cultural responsiveness, we may look to the fertile field of ethnographic enquiry for help.
Ogden (2006) suggests the following steps faculty can take to incorporate ethnographic learning into their study abroad courses, faculty can:
- Require primary-source content in student assignments. This might include personal interviews, visits to local businesses or government offices, or other steps that set up the faculty member as cultural guide.
- Assign analytical writing and course-related field study. Assign writing projects that challenge students to connect real-life experiences in the host culture, such as field trips, to a cultural interpretation. (The CGE aims to do this with the use of Open Letters.
- Develop language proficiency in students. This includes not only technical mastery of a language but an understanding of how pace, pitch, vocabulary, silence, pauses, tone, gestures, and non-verbal communication all play a part in transmitting meaning.
Institute of International Education. (2017). “Undergraduate Participation in U.S. Study Abroad.” Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange. Retrieved from https://www.iie.org/Research-and-Insights/Open-Doors/Fact-Sheets-and-Infographics/Infographics
Ogden, A. (2006). Ethnographic inquiry: Reframing the learning core of education abroad. Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, 13: 87-112.
Stevenson, R. (2018). “Addressing the discourse of Christian study abroad as mission.” Journal of Christianity and World Languages, 19: 101-112.