Kanagawa, Japan, is about as far away as you can get from New
But that's where Lisa Birzen -- then 23, now 25 -- found herself,
teaching English to rural Japanese high school students as part
of the Japan Exchange and Teaching program.
"People were saying, 'If there's ever a time in your life
when you decide to go to Japan, this is it.'"
After graduating from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire with
a degree in mathematics and "a passion for Japanese culture
and language," Birzen quit her post-grad job, eschewing the
New York City lifestyle and a larger pay check to teach in Japan,
where she had spent spring break as a junior.
"What really surprised me, and I think this is why I wanted
to return to Japan, is that despite the cultural differences,
I felt, at times, much more comfortable in Japan than I had here
in America," she said.
A growing class of global citizens
Birzen may be an atypical young American, but she's a typical
member of a growing class of global citizens -- voracious learners,
cultural sponges and unassuming ambassadors -- who have chosen
to take international detours for study, work and fun.
the 2003-2004 school year, about 200,000 college students -- 1
percent -- participated in an international education experience,
making today's college students twice as likely to travel abroad
as their counterparts from 10 years earlier.
The travel-inclined group is more likely to be female -- women
outnumber men on study abroad trips by a 2-1 ratio, according
to the Institute of International Education -- and privileged,
with whites disproportionately more likely to travel abroad than
And though the Commission on the Abraham Lincoln Study Abroad
Fellowship Program has cited cost as a major barrier to studying
abroad, some less-privileged student travelers are proving that
short trips don't necessarily pose a financial burden.
Jazmine Ulloa, 18, a sophomore at the University of Texas at
Austin, spent six weeks in Prague, Czech Republic, with a summer
digital journalism class.
Raised by her single mother, Ulloa took advantage of financial
aid recalculation, a collection of scholarships, and money she
had earned over the previous year to make the study abroad term
"Yes, I owe a lot of money, but it's the amount I would
be paying anyway if I had taken classes at the University of Texas,"
Ulloa said. "I won't have to start paying it until I graduate
so I won't worry about it until then."
In addition to financial obstacles, the Lincoln Commission also
lists safety concerns, curricular rigidity and negative institutional
culture as barriers for students wishing to study abroad.
Mandatory study abroad
Goucher College, a small liberal arts college in Baltimore promising
an "education without boundaries," made study abroad
mandatory for its students beginning in fall 2006, making it the
first college in the country to do so at a time when only 10 college
campuses send more than 40 percent of their students abroad for
study, according to the Institute of International Education.
"Some colleges are looking at us with dropped jaws, and
quite surprised that we've gone all the way right away,"
said Sanford Ungar, Goucher's president who spearheaded the requirement.
"I don't feel at all self-conscious about that because I
think we felt there was a need, and we wanted to make a dramatic
Slichter, 19, came to Goucher knowing that she would have the
opportunity to study abroad. Slichter spent three weeks -- the
school's shortest study abroad duration -- immersed in Brazilian
culture as part of a dance class. It was her first study abroad
experience and her first international vacation.
"When we weren't in class, we could do whatever we wanted
in the city; go hang out with locals in a jazz club, and we took
full advantage of that," Slichter said.
Like other students who have traveled once, Slichter wants to
travel again -- as soon as school and her finances permit.
Preparing for a global future
Brazil, where Slichter studied, saw one of the largest recent
jumps in American study abroad students: 16 percent more in 2004
than the previous year. But the emerging nations India and China
drew even more: 65 percent and 90 percent more students, respectively,
over the same period, according to the Institute of International
Though the appeal of Latin American and Asian detours is growing
rapidly, Western Europe continues to be the most popular study
abroad destination; Britain, France, Italy and Spain attract half
of the American students.
Students are traveling to more locations, but a 2006 National
Geographic poll concluded that young Americans are "unprepared
for an increasingly global future." Author Douglas McGray
said in a recent issue of Foreign Policy magazine that these young
Americans are something of a paradox: "surrounded by foreign
languages, cultures and goods," but "hopelessly uninformed,
and misinformed, about the world beyond U.S. borders."
The U.S. Senate even passed a resolution proclaiming 2006 "the
year of study abroad" to foster "a culturally aware
and a better world," but colleges have yet to report an effect
from the 10-year initiative.
Colleges, both small and large, that have incorporated international
education in their mission are not just leaders in study abroad
participation: Five of the top six U.S. colleges in Newsweek's
2006 Top Global 100 Universities list -- Harvard, Stanford, Yale,
Caltech and MIT -- also appear in the top six of U.S. News and
World Report's America's Best Colleges 2007 list.
At these top U.S. colleges, foreign companies are so eager to
hire students for internships and permanent positions abroad that
career services departments don't need to spend much time attracting
"Companies who are going to survive are competing with companies
in other countries," said Bob Richard, an associate director
of employer relations at MIT's career office. Richard said this
competition has created work opportunities for potential interns
and new graduates, frequently in the financial services or consulting
Maitra, a vice president of human resources for the Bangalore-based
Infosys, one of India's largest information technology companies,
recently hired 125 new U.S. college graduates.
Maitra looks favorably on international experience because it
shows a willingness to embrace new ideas. "It indicates that
the employee is confident, adventurous, flexible and understanding
of other cultures," Maitra said.
Annie Au, a 23-year-old business and psychology graduate of the
University of Washington, is part of the first group of U.S. Infosys
recruits to train in India.
"I see myself as more of an indirect contributor by working
for a company that exemplifies the expansion of globalization,"
Delaying the real world
Unlike Au, some graduates are opting to take a break before entering
the "real world," finding ways to travel before settling
"Travel" is consistently the most common tag at social
networking site 43things.com, which asks its users to share personal
to-do lists. Josh Peterson, one of the site's co-founders, said
travel is a "latent wish" whose popularity is growing
because of globalization.
"The world's getting smaller, the world's getting flat,"
Peterson said. "I think the Internet speeds it up. It's never
been easier to hook into adventure."
Colleen Kinder, 25, who wrote "Delaying the Real World:
A Twentysomething's Guide to Seeking Adventure" while caring
for seniors in Havana, Cuba, says trends in post-graduation travel
follow those in college study-abroad programs.
Kinder said the vast majority of applications for a yearly Delay
the Real World fellowship are "from young women and particularly
focused on humanitarian projects. ... The applications that pertain
to outdoor adventure sports ... those are [from] young men."
Kinder believes young Americans choose to travel after graduation,
shunning cubicle life for work on cruise ships or as nannies in
Europe, because they realize their careers are going to be long.
She said they are increasingly feeling that it is OK to do something
"A lot of people approach it as a delay," Kinder said,
"but what ends up happening is that they find that actually
they were pursuing what they were interested in, or they found
something they were interested in, and they're going to remain
in that sector of the economy."
Nolting of the University of Michigan's International Center added,
"These experiences can be very powerful in terms of personal
development and also in terms of crystallizing or focusing one's
Nolting said recent college graduates are in "prime time"
for taking extended overseas trips, because they aren't tied to
a career, house or marriage -- it's easier for them to pack up
and work in another country for months at a time.
The U.S. Census Bureau doesn't track the number of young people
that are abroad for work. But in the 2004-2005 school year, the
latest year for which it has tabulated numbers, the University
of Michigan's International Center estimated about 35,000 students
and recent U.S. college graduates worked abroad in programs like
JET, BUNAC -- a student work exchange program that includes summer
camp counseling -- and the Peace Corps, where graduates work on
humanitarian projects in developing countries.
Making the choice to stay or go
The Institute of International Education found that almost all
students who go abroad have increased confidence, maturity and
understanding of their own culture. And anecdotally, people who
have gone abroad continue to want to travel, and do so for longer
periods of time.
Lara Killian, who just turned 26, spent most of her 20s abroad
after trips to England, Italy and Japan as a high school student
in rural Vermont, then as a collegian from Boston College. After
graduation, she went back to England to earn a master's degree
in literature at Durham University, then returned to Japan to
teach English for a year.
She's now planning to move "semi-permanently" to Oslo
to join her Norwegian-native, world-traveling boyfriend. She said
she is looking forward to making a home there and reuniting with
the "internationally conscious" friends she made as
a master's student.
"Oddly enough, those are the people who ... I feel real
affinity with and real connection with, and it's not the people
necessarily from my high school from Vermont or from Boston College.
... I was at BC for three years, and I'm in touch with one person
and one professor. I was in England for two years and I'm in touch
with easily a dozen people who I feel very close with."
But Lisa Birzen chose a different route, returning to the United
States after her Japanese teaching experience. She quickly found
an employer: a software development company in New York City who
valued her ability to fit in a diverse group environment.
The company may be expanding to international markets, and if
Birzen doesn't have a chance to use her Japanese skills more directly,
she knows she hasn't yet committed to settling in New York City.
"I guess if it comes to the point that I'm not learning
any more, one thing I know for sure is I want Japan to be in my
life, one way or another."
-- By Adnaan Wasey, Generation Next