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How to Make International Learning Opportunities More Accessible to Non-Traditional Learners

The EvoLLLution | How to Make International Learning Opportunities More Accessible to Non-Traditional Learners
Leveraging the possibilities created by technology, and a little creativity, institutional leaders can go a long way in creating accessibility to valuable international learning opportunities for non-traditional students.

NASA recently released a photo taken last December from its Kepler space telescope. In case you missed it, Kepler is currently cruising through space in search of alien worlds and this particular image captures the blinding reflection of light bouncing off the Earth. It is not as humbling as the famous “pale blue dot” photo taken by the Cassini spacecraft, but it certainly has an effect.

What strikes me about both of these photos is the impact of a fresh perspective. I look out of my window and see a huge world. My own travels across multiple continents validate this perspective. Yet, when I look at the NASA photos, I realize that we live on a small speck of dust in the middle of nowhere. The fact that I left my coffee thermos at home today no longer seems important.

The Value of International Perspectives

Like the NASA images, international learning experiences also offer fresh perspectives to those who experience them. They allow students to understand their academic disciplines, the human experience and the grand challenges facing our planet in ways one could never imagine otherwise. The outcomes of these experiences correlate with the soft skills required by employers and multiple studies confirm that students who participate in education abroad tend to outperform their peers in terms of grades, retention and graduation rates.[1] There is no question that international learning experiences, when properly administered within appropriate frameworks, provide value to individual participants and society.[2]

Who is Studying Abroad?

According to the Institute of International Education’s 2017 Open Doors report, 91.2 percent of students who participated in study abroad programs during the 2015/16 academic year reported having no disability, 87.7 percent were undergraduates, 71.6 percent identified as white, 66.5 percent identified as female, 54.4 percent studied abroad in Europe and 25 percent were majoring in STEM fields.

These statistics are important because they provide a profile of the traditional beneficiaries of study abroad, which is the traditional vehicle of structured international learning. They also give us an idea of where we fall short in terms of access and outreach.

It is important to recognize that there is a national focus on increasing the number and diversity of students going abroad. Major initiatives include Generation Study Abroad and 100k Strong in the Americas, which both offer funding to increase academic mobility. Yet, in spite of these and other efforts, the fact remains that at most institutions the majority of students will never study abroad.

Therein lies the challenge for educators. Traditional study abroad programs tend to serve specific populations, yet the value of international perspectives serves all. How can educators provide 100 percent of students with access to international learning opportunities knowing that only a fraction will ever actually study abroad? The full answer to this question falls beyond the scope of this article, but below are three important considerations with the non-traditional student in mind.[3, 4] It is my hope that these will serve to help frame the conversation around ways to diversify participation in traditional programs and increase capacity through non-traditional programs.


Similar to the images captured by Kepler and Cassini, international imagery can be both powerful and compelling. Flags of various nations hanging in the student union, clocks in computer labs displaying world time zones and stories on the homepage highlighting international research collaborations can all serve to give the campus an international feel. This in turn influences the campus culture and supports, both directly and indirectly, thinking about international engagement.

However, imagery can also discourage certain students from ever considering study abroad. For instance, marketing materials only showing pictures of younger students may send a message that older students are not welcome on these programs. Images of those same students jumping in front of the Eiffel Tower, holding surfboards on the beach or riding camels through the desert may fail to communicate the value of the international experience to working professionals. Reflection of how current depictions of international learning experiences fit with the values, priorities and concerns of non-traditional students is necessary if educators are to move the needle in terms of access. Educators should carefully review and control the images used to promote study abroad on their campuses. As with the institution’s brand, the study abroad brand weakens when imagery fails to resonate with students or align with the institution’s mission and values.


Finances represent a real barrier to accessing higher education and it can be a challenge to convince students that study abroad is not simply an additional expense. This is especially true for students who are financially independent but struggling to make ends meet. Such students need to see how study abroad programs fit within their financial means and priorities. To accomplish this, educators may need to apply new ways of thinking about international academic partnerships. For instance, the traditional semester and year-long exchange agreements could be revised to include a short-term study option. The same agreement might also include a financial incentive for participants willing to teach English at the partner institution or intern with a local company. Such models are already common throughout Asia and Europe, respectively.


Traditional international learning experiences require a large commitment of time away from work, family and friends. Students who are single parents, work full-time or married may find the opportunity cost greater than the potential benefits of the international experience. Thus, any portfolio of study abroad programs should include opportunities that are less than one week in duration. These short-term, high-impact programs may offer limited opportunities for learning the language and culture of the host community, but the intellectual benefits are still significant especially for students who lack prior international exposure.[5]

Alternatively, it is possible to embed international learning experiences into courses without ever requiring students to leave their home campus.[6] Often referred to as Internationalization at Home, this strategy focuses on expanding international learning opportunities for the majority of students who do not study abroad.[7] Approaches range from classic models of facilitating cross-cultural interactions among students to the application of modern technology via collaborative online international learning programs.[8] Study abroad is a popular type of international learning opportunity, but it is not the only international learning opportunity. The key is to provide students with opportunities to acquire alternative perspectives in hope that in doing so we will better prepare them to interact across cultural difference and discover solutions to the major challenges facing this pale blue dot we call home.

– – – – References and Footnotes

[1] For links to several empirical studies on the value of study abroad, please see

[2] For a thorough discussion on the link between student learning and intentionality in program design and delivery of study abroad programs, please see

[3] For an excellent e-book on reaching non-traditional students, please see

[4] The term “non-traditional student” is widely used, but problematic. For a critique of the term, please see

[5] McKeown, J. (2009) The First Time Effect. SUNY Press. Retrieved from

[6] For links to various resources on internationalizing the classroom, see

[7] Beelen J., Jones E. (2015) Redefining Internationalization at Home. In: Curaj A., Matei L., Pricopie R., Salmi J., Scott P. (eds) The European Higher Education Area. Springer. Retrieved from

[8] Mestenhauser, J. 1976. Learning with Foreign Students. University of Minnesota. Retrieved from