The way that study abroad programs offered by U.S. colleges and universities are shown to the public unintentionally presents a very skewed picture of the world, according to Julie Ficarra, the associate director of study abroad at SUNY Cortland.
While working on her recent doctorate in cultural foundations of education from Syracuse University, Ficarra investigated the study abroad websites of three institutions of higher education and found that they unintentionally present a biased view of what students can learn in individual countries.
Ficarra’s research concluded that the institutions’ websites describe programs in countries that nurtured western civilization as centers of intellectual learning, while portraying the countries in the southern latitudes as places where students can lend a helping hand as community development interns engaged in social work.
In other words, they subtly show students that western nations are places to learn about art, science, philosophy and other intellectually sophisticated fields, while developing countries are places where students can learn how to make a difference by helping those in need.
By putting her finger on this dilemma, she earned herself the 2019 Innovative Research in International Education Award from NAFSA: Association of International Educators, which was announced at its conference from May 26 to 31 in Washington, D.C.
The award is presented through the association’s Teaching, Learning and Scholarship Knowledge Community, which focuses on curriculum internationalization, research that informs practice, and intercultural communication, serving faculty; administrators; graduate and post-doctoral students; researchers; intercultural trainers; cross-cultural counselors; and other professionals in international education.
She’s one of only six people since 2010 to earn the award.
“What I was really proud of in receiving this Teaching Learning Scholarship Innovation award is that I don’t think these ideas should be groundbreaking,” Ficarra said. “It hits you in the face. In my article I include numbers — graphs, charts — so you can sort of visualize this problem.”
Her award was based on the article she wrote during her doctoral research, “Curating Cartographies of Knowledge: Reading Institutional Study Abroad Portfolios as Text,” which appeared in the April 2017 edition of Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad. While she ultimately defended her doctoral dissertation with another topic, Ficarra submitted this article for the NAFSA award.
“The vast majority of U.S. students will never study abroad but many of them will attend a study abroad fair or casually browse a study abroad website,” said Ficarra, who currently works in the College’s International Programs Office.
“And so the places we’re offering particular types of programs — that focus on an academic discipline or activities — are teaching them something about the world and their place in it.”
For example, at colleges and universities in the U.S., web marketing of study abroad opportunities on history, art, philosophy and political science can be hard to find for students who want to visit the Southern hemisphere, in particular Sub-Saharan Africa, according to Ficarra. They instead are offered opportunities to do service work or to study international development or public health.
“These offerings tend to focus on what the ‘Other’ with a capital ‘O’ are doing wrong and what we as Americans are doing right and the knowledge that we can bring to the world,” she said.
On the other hand, she said it would be tough to locate on a college or university’s study abroad website any chance for an American student to intern with a charity that’s creatively helping Great Britain or Germany address the complex needs of of immigrants.
According to Ficarra, study abroad websites universally present study abroad portfolios, that is, the compilation of study abroad programs that a university promotes to its students which take place in particular locations focusing on specific academic disciplines.
Ficarra argues that, in looking at institutional study abroad portfolios as a unit of analysis, “common-sense” disciplinary/geographic pairings emerge, which have the potential to unintentionally define where particular types of knowledge do — and do not — exist.
“I think that the students’ global education should be more focused on what we can learn from others as opposed to what we, especially what we as students, can teach others,” said Ficarra.
“I think that cultural humility is really important,” she said. “When programs are framed or designed — regardless of what happens on the ground — in such a way that students are put in the position of having expert knowledge or even having more knowledge than local people, I think that is a problem. And I think that problem tends to play out more in the global south than in the global north.”
Ficarra’s term “common sense” arose out of her casual conversations with her counterparts at various institutions when they compared their institutional portfolios, with everyone agreeing: “Gee, we only offer courses in Africa that focus on service learning.”
“Seeing that there wasn’t a lot of academic diversity in the offerings on the continent of Africa was disappointing but it wasn’t surprising,” Ficarra said. “What was more surprising was that I couldn’t find a single service learning program in Europe. If I try to extrapolate: ‘I’m a student learning about the world, or I’m not a student, learning about the world,” what does that say, that there’s not a single service learning program on the continent of Europe?”
The point isn’t to define service learning as a problem, Ficarra said.
“The whole point, I think, of international education is to try to get students to question or sort of complicate their ways of thinking about the world and their place in it,” Ficarra said. “I think that when we limit study abroad programs in sub-Saharan Africa to service learning, for example, it reinforces stereotypes and this singular view about what this massive continent is about.”
She kept the three institutions that served as case studies in her research anonymous because she didn’t want the institutions’ names to get in the way of a rather universal conundrum in higher education.
“The idea isn’t to point fingers at particular institutions,” Ficarra said. “I think that this is an issue that is faced by international educators across institutions and across institutional types.
“But there are stories being told about the world through the programs that are offered from New York to California.”
What Ficarra observed across these three institutions was pretty typical across U.S. higher education.
“That’s not to say there aren’t programs in Europe that incorporate some type of volunteering or service learning but that’s not the primary goal of those programs,” Ficarra said. “Whereas there are lots of programs in the global south that focus specifically on service learning.”
Ficarra did not attempt to solve the matter in her article.
“I think if there were an easy solution to this problem, it wouldn’t be a problem in the first place,” she said.
“One possibility is increasing partnerships with colleges and universities in the global south, for either one-way study abroad or bilateral exchanges.”
However, universities in small African or Caribbean countries don’t always have the funds to develop the sophisticated scholarly exchange programs seen in the northern hemisphere.
Ficarra needs only to look back on her days as an Una Chapman Cox Fellow at the U.S. Embassy in Mbabane, Swaziland for an example (she also fulfilled the fellowship at the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs in Washington, D.C.).
“I saw first-hand the challenges that the University at Swaziland had in terms of resources and faculty and staff striking, which we don’t think of here,” Ficarra said. “But that would be a huge challenge for a U.S. institution in creating either a bilateral exchange or a partnership with the University at Swaziland.”
SUNY Cortland currently offers a program in Ghana that gives students a wide array of disciplinary choices.
Another potential solution is that U.S. faculty members who wish to teach their discipline in another country can be encouraged to think creatively about location.
The first faculty-led study abroad program she was exposed to was led by an anthropology faculty member who did his dissertation work in Maasai Land in Tanzania.
“He brought his students back to Tanzania year after year for 30 years. This was a faculty member with really strong local connections and a lot of expertise in the local context.”
Likewise, at SUNY Cortland Jeremiah Donovan, a professor of art and art history, for years has led popular, multi-disciplinary field trips first to China, then Belize and most recently to Cuba.
The trend toward faculty-led, short-term programs is increasing access for students and that’s a good thing, Ficarra noted.
“But it’s really putting the onus on the faculty to expose students to the diversity of a place and a people in a very short period of time. There’s a greater responsibility there. I think that it takes a really special faculty member.”
A third avenue is that institutions of higher education can fill in the gaps in their own study abroad portfolios by promoting the offerings of organizations called third party providers that offer, say, service learning trips to Europe or academic and cultural curricula in Sub-Saharan Africa.
“There should probably always be art programs in Florence because it’s like the birthplace of the Renaissance,” said Ficarra, herself an avid collector of international art. “That’s not really the problem. But perhaps as a field, for every ten programs that focus on art in Florence, there should be one program that focuses on art in East Africa — Nairobi, Cape Town, Arusha or Accra.”
She noted that study abroad and international programs as a focus of academic research are evolving and currently there is a lot more attention paid to the more formalized areas relating to study abroad, such as evaluating student learning outcomes, the student experience, faculty development and language learning.
“Right now I’m focused on the hidden curriculum,” Ficarra said. “Right now a lot of the research focuses on ‘What do we say that we’re teaching students and are they actually learning what we intend?’ What I’m interested in is finding out ‘What are they learning that we don’t intend?’”
In addition to her Ph.D., which she earned this year, she holds a master’s degree in international education policy from Harvard University.
Her research interests focus broadly on the application of critical social theories to our understanding of the relationships of power that are maintained, challenged or produced through international education in its many forms.
Before joining SUNY Cortland in 2017, Ficarra worked in International Education with the University at Buffalo, Harvard University and the University of South Florida.