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Study Abroad Has Never Lived Up to Its Own Social Justice Aspirations

The right values must be instilled into study abroad culture to be a catalyst for change, even if it means having difficult conversations.
The right values must be instilled into study abroad culture to be a catalyst for change, even if it means having difficult conversations.

Let’s face it—study abroad doesn’t live up to its own social justice aspirations. Learners seek broad access, especially low-income and BIPOC students. We as an institution seek reciprocal and mutually beneficial engagement between our students and communities, yet anti-racist education remains on the periphery of study abroad (Charles and Deardorff, 2020). Participation remains overwhelmingly white and female, and destinations are overwhelmingly Eurocentric. Sadly, departmental silos and inertia remain the dominant and overriding response of most universities 

We argue that study abroad must focus on active community-based collaboration. Whether in-person or virtually, international or local, this work is inherently political in nature, guided by community priorities, deeply collaborative, reciprocal and real-world. 

We must instill social justice into our core activities and be catalysts for change, even if addressing power disparities may be uncomfortable. 

In this instance, change is effected by a backward design approach to first focus on the learning outcomes, then identify the evidence of learning and finally create the curricular model for a new type of program.

Our overarching objective is to enable university students to become positive change agents through community engagement in global—and local—contexts by changing habits of mind. Within this new paradigm, we propose the following learning outcomes.

Stage 1:

  • Students will unearth stereotypical perceptions of the other and deepen their self-awareness.
  • Students will explore global themes in programs (the UN Sustainable Development Goals, for example) and identify local solutions. Conversely, students will explore local themes in programs and identify global solutions.
  • Students will deepen their self-agency and begin to appreciate their own leadership potential.
  • Students will build the skills to develop new networks through active community collaborative work, global and local, that removes barriers to participation.
  • Students will hone their problem-solving skills through collective, project based learning.

On a programmatic level, faculty and administrators should advance the following goals:

  • To engage and to create new opportunities for historically disenfranchised, underrepresented students.
  • To actively recruit new cohorts of students, including alumni and nontraditional-aged adult learners, from Continuing Education Offices.
  • To realign traditional centers of power by joining grassroots efforts with local organizations. Universities can also connect U.S.-based organizations with their overseas counterparts.
  • To empower students to be thoughtful stewards of their own learning through individually crafted learning plans following basic principals of andragogy.

We must focus on authentic forms of community empowerment and engagement, both stateside and overseas as opposed to one-sided and superficial service-learning endeavors. Existing practices and models can serve as best practices (Hartman, Keily, Boettcher and Friedrichs, 2018; Charles, Zhou and Scarnati, 2021; Scarnati and Armstrong, 2021). Moreover, we advocate for cross-disciplinary approaches to lend students a variety of intellectual lenses through which to view societal problems. Our Gen Z learners are insisting on global change, yet current study abroad program models often overlook their student’s digital savvy, political progressivism and embrace of diversity as key ingredients for challenging the status quo. Instead, they typically relegate these students to traditional forms of passive learning that minimizes substantive engagement with the host community and stifles creativity.

Stage 2: Identifying Evidence of Learning

It is imperative that faculty leaders and study abroad administrators re-examine their assessment practices to determine if they are measuring student learning effectively, especially those focused on student agency. Specifically, we should focus on intercultural competencies and the collaborative skills developed through reciprocal global and local community-based learning. For students to become dynamic, community-centered change agents, they must develop communication and active listening skills, work collaboratively in cross-cultural teams, think critically and exhibit cultural humility and resilience. 

Yet it appears that many institutions are neglecting to focus their programming in ways that maximize learning that most effectively develops these skills. Additionally, self-reported post-program evaluations on platforms such as Qualtrics prevail, despite their limited efficacy. We recommend direct and indirect measures of formative assessment of student learning through e-portfolios, which can include journal entries and reflection, capstone projects, exhibits and performances, conference-style posters and research articles that can better demonstrate the growth students experience. Bringing in the voices of host-city community members to assess students’ performance in select skill areas, such as communication, collaboration and cultural adaptation, can also further enhance the evidence collection process. 

Stage 3: New Curricular Models for Programs.

Virtual forms of pedagogy are fast becoming mainstream at universities around the world. It is clear that time, cost and space boundaries are no longer as fixed as in years past. New technology-based learning management platforms allow for more ongoing, reciprocal and flat planning for collective action between our students and community partners. Additionally, alternative credentials such as digital badges are already in play both on the home campus and abroad—although increased coordination between universities and industry is needed to determine their applicable value. 

Domestic programming, when partnered with locally based communities, can foment long-lasting engagement, as well as provide rich global experiences. Using the local to teach about the global accomplishes many goals; one can seek programs that are grounded in social justice by working with marginalized communities to build collective power and agency. We can ground this activity in deep critical reflection on issues of power, equity and positionality. We can even engage global communities virtually to reduce study abroad’s carbon footprint. 

The focus of programming should also be expanded to incorporate global and local topics such as climate change; border studies, migration, and immigrant communities; pandemics, public health, and policy; and supply chain management and labor markets. Each is critical to students’ understanding of the nature of current societal challenges around the globe. 

We must act now, or study abroad risks becoming increasingly irrelevant. For the good of our students and for the broader communities in which we all live, we must foreground social justice into our core activities, be catalysts for change and exhibit the institutional courage to follow through.  


Charles, Harvey, and Darla Deardorff. “International educators must lead on anti-racist education.” Times Higher Education (THE). June 26, 2020.

Charles, Harvey, Jiangyuan (JY) Zhou, and Blase Scarnati. 2021. “Foregrounding a globalized localism for social justice through the 21st century college curriculum.” Global Impact Exchange. Spring 2021.

Hartman, Erik, Richard Kiely, Christopher Boettcher, and Jessica Friedrichs. Community-based global learning: The theory and practice of ethical engagement at home and abroad. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, 2018.

Scarnati, Blase, and Melissa Armstrong. “Developing a Globalized Localism Model and Practice for Social Justice.” Global Impact Exchange. Summer 2021.