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OPINION: Advice to Illinois college students: Study abroad


Editor’s Note: This op-ed was distributed by Capitol News Illinois on behalf of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own.


I have some simple — and unsolicited — advice for Illinois college and university students: Do everything possible to study abroad while you are an undergraduate.

I offer this advice based on personal experience and academic research.

I attended Knox College and spent one semester of my junior year on a London-Florence program that Knox sponsored with several other Midwestern schools. This was my first trip overseas and it not only provided a primer on two remarkable countries, it also allowed me to live and study with students from around the United States who I would never have encountered on the Galesburg campus of Knox. We spent the first eight weeks in London studying English history, with unforgettable visits to the Houses of Parliament, Hampton Court, and the Tower of London. Our evenings were devoted to attending plays and concerts. This was followed by eight weeks in Florence, Italy, delving into Italian history and learning about the architectural and artistic splendor of not only Florence but Siena, Padua, and Pisa as well.

This was an enriching time for me that sparked a lifelong love of travel and an enduring interest in international affairs.

My wife attended Clark University in Massachusetts and spent her entire junior year abroad thanks to its exchange program with the University of Sussex in Brighton, England. There she and a handful of other “Clarkies” were fully immersed in an English university, living and studying with British students. Not only did her passion for British history, literature, and theater blossom during the year, but she was also able to spend school vacations traveling around the United Kingdom and Europe. She made two lifelong British friends that year and now, decades later, speaks to them regularly. My wife counts that year in Sussex as one of her life’s best decisions.

Our experiences are not unique.

The State Department makes a powerful case for study abroad programs. “By studying abroad, you will experience new perspectives, learn how to navigate different cultures, work with diverse peers, and communicate in other languages,” the department says on its website. “Whether you are a future innovator, entrepreneur, engineer, scientist, doctor, journalist, teacher or diplomat, these are the skills that will prepare you to solve the world’s toughest challenges, make you more competitive in the job market and transform you into a responsible engaged citizen.”

In a typical year, more than 300,000 America students study, intern, or volunteer abroad for academic credit on programs ranging from two weeks to a full academic year. Studies reveal that about 80% of college freshman say they would like to study abroad but only about 10% actually do so before they graduate.

Paul Simon was a passionate advocate for international travel and education, especially for students who used the experience to learn another language. In his book, “The Tongue Tied American,” Simon argued that learning a foreign language enlarges our world and makes us better citizens.

Two Illinois lawmakers, U.S. Senator Richard Durbin and U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, recently joined colleagues on both sides of the political aisle to reintroduce the Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Program Act in the U.S. Congress.

The legislation has a number of goals. It seeks to boost the number of undergraduate students studying abroad annually to one million students within 10 years; increase the number of minority students, first generation college students, community college students, and students with disabilities who study abroad; grow the number of students who study in nontraditional destinations, with an emphasis on economically developing nations; and encourage colleges and universities to place a greater emphasis on study abroad programs.

The bill includes competitive grants for colleges and universities to help them expand access to study abroad programs. It also allows grants to be used to help offset individual student costs related to study abroad — which can be a barrier.

According to CollegeVine, 50 Illinois colleges and universities offer study abroad programs, providing important opportunities for their students.

I encourage students to study overseas, make new friends, see the world — and then return home and make Illinois better.

John Shaw is the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Shaw’s monthly column explores how Illinois can work toward better politics and smarter government.

John T. Shaw joined the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute as director in January 2018. He established the Institute’s “Better Politics, Smarter Government” agenda with its Restoring American Statesmanship, Renewing Illinois, and Understanding Our New World programs.
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