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Is $120 Million Study Abroad Bill About Cultural Exchange or American Dominance?

United States Travel
by Sarah Menkedick Nov 30, 2009
A new bill facing approval in the Senate offers 120 million in increased funding for study abroad programs.

The Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Foundation Act has passed in the House of Representatives and is currently moving on to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. If passed, the act would provide 40 million dollars in 2010 and 80 million in 2011 to colleges, universities, individual students, and nongovernmental organizations that provide study abroad opportunities.

The stated goal of the act is to broaden American students’ understanding of other cultures, to increase the number of minority and low-income students who study abroad, and to encourage students to study in developing countries (more than two thirds of American study abroad students study in Western Europe).

At first, it sounds great. Studying abroad is a jarring, lingering lesson in increased awareness for many American students. It can arguably create a paradigm shift in the way they see and understand the world, and the way they see and think about the United States and its government and media, and I certainly think this is a good thing.

It can, of course, also be a great way to have a hot fling with a French girl and get wasted every night for a year, but we’ll try to be optimistic here and assume that for every ten kids hanging out with the other Americans getting blasted on cheap wine in the plaza there are one or two who are going to come back changed, and perhaps slightly more compassionate and curious about, other people and cultures.

But is that what this plan is really all about? The description of the bill on the website of Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) quotes Marlene Johnson, Executive Director and CEO of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, as saying:

“[Senators Durbin and Wicker] understand that the global education of our college students is absolutely essential to strengthening America’s position as a responsible leader on the world stage and ensuring its competitiveness in the global economy. Now more than ever, we need to invest wisely to meet these national needs.”

It goes on to mention the importance of study abroad programs to our “economic competitiveness, future diplomacy, and security.”

Sounds an awful lot to me like sending kids abroad to…discover new markets? Convince everyone of just how compassionate and warm and big-hearted America is, and how it’d be just fine if the U.S came to dominate their country and say, their economy a bit more?

Call me cynical here, but this sounds a bit less like “perhaps we should understand other countries more instead of invading them” and a bit more like “this is a good and effective way to spread U.S dominance!” After all, what exactly does study abroad have to do with economic competitiveness?

I can understand security, perhaps; there’s the vaguely naive, long-shot hope that well-meaning study abroad students might do something to alleviate resentment against Americans, or that through a combined effort to create mutually respectful study abroad exchanges and not to alienate the rest of the world politically and diplomatically we might change some of the more negative views of the U.S – but the thought of study abroad for the purposes of increasing competitiveness in the global economy I find plainly disturbing.

Plus, if we follow that competitiveness to a logical end, well, wouldn’t we be shopping at Nike in Sub-Saharan Africa, eating McDonald’s, watching the latest Hollywood flick at a mega-plex in an air conditioned mall in Dakar? Meeting friendly people in Laos and Angola and the Ukraine who work for massive American corporations, wearing American clothes, driving American cars, eating American food? Here in Mexico you can already see this global competitiveness taking place – in Sam’s Club, whole avenues of American chain restaurants, mega-malls, and enormous superstores superseding local markets. In ten more years of study abroad, imagine the cultural exchange that awaits American students!

What do you think, Matador readers? I’d be curious to know your take on this bill, and whether you slant towards hope or cynicism, or hover somewhere between the two.

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