Of 94 seniors surveyed last winter, “I couldn’t afford it” was the statement that topped the list for why these students
graduated without spending a term abroad.
Associate Professor of Modern Languages Robin Ragan allied with the Office of Institutional Research and Assessment to create this survey and discover what holds students back from study abroad. The survey brought her questions to answer as well. Why are men, high academic performers and students in the STEM fields less likely to study abroad?
To begin her assessment, Ragan looked into the top five reasons the seniors did not go abroad. She expected money to be the major factor.
“A lot of times [not being able to afford it] is an assumption that students make upfront, but they don’t really have numbers at their side to prove they can’t afford it,” Ragan said
In the face of money woes, Ragan explained that all need and merit based aid a student is receiving at Knox follows them wherever they wish to go. Students in the lowest income brackets receiving Pell Grants have the federal Gilman Scholarship available to them.
“Our challenge is getting to students who assume they can’t study abroad because of the cost before they even attend the info sessions,” Ragan explained. “It’s getting to them before that happens.”
Numbers two and three were of a similar nature: “I wouldn’t be able to take the courses I needed to graduate, due to how the courses were scheduled” and “I was worried about graduating on time.” Scheduling issues may arise, which is why Ragan urges students to look into the programs they are interested in early on, and to be aware of when the classes they desire to take are timed during the academic year.
“There were too many classes at Knox that I wanted to take.” Of the students surveyed, 43 percent listed this as a reason to stay.
“That’s kind of a good problem to have,” Ragan said. “Students are excited about the classes we offer here at Knox College. It will be a bit of an obstacle for us to convince students study abroad is worth it if they are really dying to take classes here. We can work on talking to students more about what kinds of special courses they can take abroad that are not offered at Knox.”
The deficit of men in study abroad is likely linked to number five: “I can always travel after I graduate.”
In the worst years, men have only made up 20 percent of students studying abroad. This problem isn’t just on a local scale; it’s national.
“Women tend to think that this is the only time in their life where they won’t be tied down, and this is their chance to see the world. Men don’t tend to think that way,” Ragan said. “They tend to think of this as a backpack adventure they can do anytime. Now, they want to focus on their careers and their courses, internships and things like that.”
The “backpack adventure” stereotype damages interest in the high performing and STEM groupings as well. Those with GPAs between 3.5 and 3.9 comprised 40 percent of those who answered the survey.
“That really surprised me that high GPAs wouldn’t study abroad very often,” Ragan said. “I didn’t dig into why that might be, but I have some hunches. The thing I wonder about is whether the high performing students think of study abroad as a vacation term, as a time when you’re not really serious about your studies. If that’s the case, I think that they need to be informed about the opportunities there are for very high performing students.”
Ragan believes these groups need to be shown how spending time away from Knox can help them excel. In the case of male students, the faculty needs to convey “what study abroad can offer them that is very specific to their career. Or study abroad programs that include internships so they can see the direct connection [to academics].” Especially with men, a little push from faculty in the direction of off campus study tends to go a long way.
Ragan understands some other worries from a personal perspective.
“A lot of our students at Knox are first generation. That puts them at a bit of a disadvantage at understanding how the world of academics works. I was a first generation student myself. I understand that there ts a learning curve and a lot of things you assume you can’t do because ‘that has to be for the rich kids.’”
Even with all this information, study abroad can be a daunting idea as worries remain.
“I think a lot of students are still stuck in the mentality that if ‘I don’t know a foreign language, I don’t study abroad.’ ‘I don’t speak another language’ was reason number six,” Ragan said.
While immersion programs are available, they are not the only option. The model of an English course load with a singular language class has expanded over the years and is something available to interested Knox students.
Ragan encourages anyone with the slightest interest to look into study abroad. The Institute Day Workshops on Oct. 23 include a general informational session and an application workshop to work students through the process of applying to go abroad.