Reflections on the White House Travel Blogger Summit on Study Abroad & Global Citizenship

k-whIt’s been a full week since I returned home after a whirlwind 40 hours in Washington, D.C., to attend the White House Travel Blogger Summit on Study Abroad and Global Citizenship. To recap, 100 travel bloggers and digital influencers were invited to the White House by the National Security Council and the Bureau of Educational & Cultural Affairs, to learn about U.S. Government initiatives and discuss strategies for encouraging American students to study, volunteer, and work abroad.

Associated activities included a networking breakfast at the W Hotel, whose POV restaurant’s rooftop lounge has an awesome view of the White House and Washington Monument, as well as lunch at the stately National Press Club, where we heard from the CEO of Hostelling International USA Russ Hedge, as well as Don Wildman, the Travel Channel host of “Mysteries at the White House,” whose anecdotes about hostel stays had me taking a walk back in time to my own study-abroad experience more than 25 years ago.

I wish I’d had more energy at the end of a long day to fully appreciate the exhibits at the Newseum, where we were hosted to a sit-down dinner, courtesy of event sponsor Turkish Airlines. (This quick trip to Washington, D.C., cemented my desire to return to the city for several days with children in tow to fully explore its monuments and museums, for sure.)

A self-guided tour of the White House all decked out for the holidays with the theme “A Children’s Winter Wonderland” was likely a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me, and one I fully enjoyed, despite having to wait for at least 45 minutes in chilly rain in security lines before entering the White House. I appreciated the small plaques in each of the rooms, detailing their history; for example, in the Green Room, Thomas Jefferson once hosted dinners and Grover Cleveland, the only U.S. President to marry at the White House, was wed in the Blue Room in 1886. I especially liked the State Dining Room, where vintage luggage pieces decorated the window bays, and Scrabble pieces spelled out “Winter Wonderland” on the mantle. Another highlight: the official tree, the biggest of many on display, pays tribute to American’s servicemen and women with the theme “America the Brave.” This is also where I accosted Travel Channel’s Samantha Brown, a summit speaker and attendee, for a photo. (She was incredibly sweet and accommodating to all those who wanted their photos snapped with her.)


But the whole reason we were all in D.C. was to hear directly from high-ranking officials about government-sponsored programs and initiatives relating to study abroad. And we indeed sat in a briefing room in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building for more than three hours to engage in the topic with such important folks like Ben Rhodes, the Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications; Evan Ryan, Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs; Denis McDonough, Chief of Staff of the White House; Penny Prtizker, Secretary of Commerce; and Tina Tchen, Assistant to the President and Chief of Staff to the First Lady.

In fact, if you’d like to see the recorded live-stream of the event for yourself, you can watch nearly four hours of it on YouTube (it actually starts at 16:38.)

That's Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, just one of 20 speakers at the White House Travel Blogger Summit.

That’s Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, just one of 20 speakers at the White House Travel Blogger Summit.

Every single speaker extolled the virtues of traveling, working or studying abroad during college. We heard how important international experience during college is to the current Administration, both the President and First Lady, for ensuring our young people have the skills, background and cultural fluency to succeed in the competitive 21st-century global economy. We listened to statistics concerning the overall very low number of Americans who actually study abroad: fewer than 10% of all college students currently take part in study abroad over their entire academic careers. And those students are not diverse: 76% of U.S. study abroad students are white.

So, as I sat and listened, and audience members chimed in with opinions and questions, I kept thinking, “Okay, we all know study abroad is important; you’re preaching to the choir. And we’ve learned that not enough students go abroad during college. What are we–and the U.S. government–going to do about it?

And, throughout the afternoon, that question was answered…. in part. Here’s what I learned: The State Department is launching a specific U.S. Study Abroad Office under the Bureau of Educational & Cultural Affairs. Details were sketchy at the summit, but it sounds as if it will debut in a month or two, and the idea is that it will a) help disseminate information about study abroad programs and scholarships the U.S. government offers (some of which I list below) and b) work with universities and get the message of the importance of study abroad out to students, while helping to eliminate the barriers (mainly cost, credit transfer and concerns about “taking a break” from competitive majors, such as pre-med and engineering) that prevent students from considering study abroad.

There are several government initiatives and programs that encourage and support study abroad:

100K Strong Foundation engages US and Chinese government, business and academic communities in efforts to expand the number and diversity of Americans studying Mandarin and studying abroad in China.

100,000 Strong in the Americas works to increase international study and educational exchanges in Latin America and the Caribbean.

NSLI for Youth provides merit-based scholarships for eligible high school students and recent high school graduates to learn less commonly taught languages in summer and academic-year overseas immersion programs. Languages include Mandarin, Korean, Hindi, Russian, Persian, Turkish and Arabic.

CLS: Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) Programs offer fully funded language institutes for university students. These also cover less commonly taught languages, from Azerbaijani to Urdu.

Fullbright U.S. Student Program is the largest U.S. exchange program offering opportunities for students and young professionals to undertake international graduate study, advanced research, university teaching, and primary and secondary school teaching worldwide. The program currently awards approximately 1,900 grants annually in all fields of study, and operates in more than 140 countries worldwide.

Benjamin Gilman International Scholarship aims to diversify the kinds of students who study and intern abroad and the countries and regions where they go by offering awards to U.S. undergraduates who might otherwise not participate due to financial constraints. It is open to U.S. citizen undergraduate students who are receiving Federal Pell Grant funding at a two-year or four-year college or university.

Now, these programs are great, but are they enough? The Benjamin Gilman scholarships, for example, have touched fewer than 17,000 students since they were founded in 2001, while nearly 300,000 American students study abroad every year. If the U.S. Government wants to increase that number, the money required to send students overseas has to come from somewhere.

In fact, the prohibitive cost of college in general was acknowledged at the onset of the summit. Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said that the Obama Administration is “aggressively pushing to make college in and of itself more affordable.” In 2015, the public will be able to access a government-organized college rating system to see what students are paying and exactly what they are getting in return at colleges across the country. McDonough called this a transparent yet controversial scorecard of sorts, and that “some traditional friends are not particularly happy with it.” As I see that tuition at my college has more than doubled since I attended 25 years ago, I can’t wait to see this “scorecard” rolled out. I think it will be very helpful to parents and high school seniors as they assess what college is the best fit for them.

In addition, there was a bipartisan measure that passed this summer to decrease the cost of student loans “and we’ll continue to work that,” McDonough said. Third, he noted that it’s important that students have access not only to low-cost loans, but also grants. In 2009-2010 there was a “dramatic expansion” in the availability of Pell Grants, and McDonough says that “we’ll continue to push on that.” He concluded, “Bottom line, we don’t see cost of foreign study as separate from the cost of college.”

It is heartening to learn that college affordability, as well as the importance of study abroad, is a priority for the current President and his administration. And I was happy to hear of the above programs and initiatives, in particular those that are working toward increasing the diversity of students who go abroad, as well as the diversity of the countries that students visit.

And there was still more to learn. For example, we heard from the director of the Peace Corps, who noted that the organization has streamlined its online application process and now allows applicants to choose where they’d like to serve. I also found out about Global Citizen Year, which immerses “fellows” in developing countries during a “bridge year” after high school, and Minerva Schools, where undergraduates complete their education in up to seven cities, such as San Francisco, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Hong Kong and Sydney, around the world. Cool stuff, right?

I feel like there is a lot more education and discussion to be had, and for that I’ll be looking to the U.S. Study Abroad Office to help consolidate some of these messages and to continue the dialogue that was started at the White House Travel Blogger Summit. The December 9 meeting was just the beginning of what I hope is a very rich, ongoing discussion that needs to involve many different stakeholders: not only government officials and online influencers who might be good at spreading messages in the digital world, but also college presidents, study-abroad office directors, and professors, as well as high school teachers, principals, parents, and teens themselves.

Let’s find those corporations that want to hire these globally minded citizens and get their deep pockets to support more scholarships for travel abroad. Let’s start talking about the importance of studying different cultures and learning about foreign lifestyles in elementary school; better yet, let’s make learning a second language mandatory in all U.S. public elementary schools! I think creative partnerships, out-of-the-box thinking, and a whole lot of cooperation and partnerships need to happen to get the number of college students studying abroad to increase from that dismal 10 percent statistic.

I look forward to being part of the solution, and I look forward to the launch of the U.S. Study Abroad Office, as I think that’s a key step in continuing to spread the message of the importance and the benefits of study abroad.

Chime in on the discussion on Twitter at #WHTravelBloggers and #StudyAbroadBecause.

3 Comments on "Reflections on the White House Travel Blogger Summit on Study Abroad & Global Citizenship"

  1. Hi. Glad I could make it to that summit. I saw a lot of people who I have only seen on TV’s and read about.. was a really nice experience all together. Thanks for posting this. We have a long road to walk in now.

  2. Initiating dialogue with the government in an area which is our expertise is an excellent way for them to shape their strategy to help Americans reach their goals with regards to traveling abroad … hope they engaged you guys in the way you were hoping!

  3. Studying abroad is an awesome goal, with that comes an awesome responsibility to safeguard students and prevent victimization. As a host mom of eight international youth for more than twelve years, I get how rewarding cultural exchange can be on a very personal level. As a mom to a 16 year old son, Tyler, who died a preventable death a world away on a People to People trip to Japan, I also get how devastating it can be.

    Our students deserve safeguards. In a plea for help for an American High School student in South Africa, USDOS Assistant Secretary Julie Frifield responded, “The Department of State has some partial regulatory authority over [redacted program name] as a J-1 Visa Designated Sponsor as it relates specifically to international students studying in the United States. However, there is no oversight on the part of the Department of State, or any other federal agency, over private exchanges for American high school students overseas.”

    We know from the school of hard knocks the same applies to higher ed college kids. US DOJ responds, “Policy has not kept pace with globalization.”

    Our kids are paying high prices, sometimes with their life, to be escorted into dangerous territory USDOS does not allow its employees, where active USDOS travel warnings exist, where US Peace Corp has pulled out, often without adequate evacuation insurance or ‘safe guards’. One death is one too many. Every life is priceless.

    We are working on standardized safe study abroad education, transparency – two laws in Minnesota – hurray! and actively engaging our policy makers to safeguard our children, our most precious assets, our future, with protective policy.

    Perhaps Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, or USDOS Bureau of Cultural Affairs, Asst. Secretary Evan-Ryan, Ben Rhodes, Penny Prtizker (Students are being overcharged on under-performed study abroad), Tina Tchen, and our formidable FLOTUS might have some power to save lives and protect our students abroad.

    If study abroad becomes mandated, and it is, shouldn’t we mandate qualifications, victims and survivor support, count and report transparently and raise the bar for truly remarkable study abroad.

    $100K STRONGEST! I pray for it.

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