In a way, you could say that I had my first study abroad experience at the tender age of 7.
That's how old I was when my family moved to Germany in 1978 for my father's work as a civilian for the US Army. He worked in Frankfurt, which at that time had a large American military presence, including housing and schools; but my parents chose to live “on the economy” (i.e., not on base), and my mother — a gifted linguist who had served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand — placed me and my sister in the local schools of the tiny hamlet of Neuenhain am Taunus.
I ended up completing second through fifth grades there. Being dropped into a classroom of children who didn't speak my language was traumatic at the time, but of course I long ago found out what a great blessing that experience really was. I still speak German fluently, with very little traceable American accent. The language is hard-wired into my brain.
More than that, there's a perspective on the world and on my native country that is different than for those who haven't spent time outside of the US.
When I went to college, in 1989, I never doubted that I would study abroad. I spent a semester in Germany, through an exchange program of my college with the University of Mainz. Then I was lucky enough to earn a Fulbright Fellowship to spend my first year after college at the University of Konstanz, Germany. I later managed to get in six months of dissertation research at the University of Heidelberg as well, courtesy of the German Academic Exchange Service.
These days, more and more college students are pursuing the same impulse to live and learn abroad. Wagner College has been promoting these experiences for an unusually long time. In 1962, the College founded what it called the Wagner College Institute in Bregenz, Austria. (During its subsequent quarter-century run, it was known as the Wagner College Study Program in Bregenz, Austria.) “The opportunity to study in a foreign land and to understand the different aspects of European civilization has become in recent years an important part of the academic training of many American colleges and universities,” the program's 1962–63 bulletin intoned, pointing out that in 1960, about 2,500 American students had studied abroad.
Today, that number exceeds 270,000, according to the 2011 Open Doors Report from the Institute of International Education. And the places they travel go far beyond the boundaries of Europe.
Perhaps this is in part due to pioneering parents like Erik Unhjem '72, a 1970 Bregenz program alumnus whom I spoke with earlier this week as I begin work on a Wagner Magazine story about the history of study abroad at Wagner. He loved his Bregenz experience so much that he insisted his two children study abroad during college. (Both did, in Spain.) Erik is such a study abroad apostle that when he attended his daughter's college orientation several years ago, he stood up and gave a spontaneous testimonial to a room of about 400 parents about the benefits of studying abroad. He was inspired to do this because when the session leader asked which of the parents present had studied abroad, he was the only one who raised his hand.
I'm going to be interested in finding out what is driving today's Wagner students to take the plunge of spending a semester or a summer abroad (shorter-term programs have become more common than the traditional year abroad). If you are a student or an alum, from Bregenz or other study abroad programs, and want to talk to me about it, please get in touch.
— Laura Barlament, Editor, Wagner Magazine, firstname.lastname@example.org