On the surface, “studying abroad” and “sustainability” seem to be on opposite poles. After all, how can you be green when you’re flying all over the world? It’s true, the environmental impact of air travel is significant and there are many actions study abroad programs can and should take to reduce their footprints.  I also believe, however, that studying abroad – in and of itself – has the potential to help develop more socially and environmentally responsible citizens. By studying abroad, students learn to…

  1. Think outside the box. Einstein once said that problems cannot be solved by the mindset that created them. What better way to think differently than to immerse yourself in a foreign culture?  And, if Oliver Wendell Holmes is correct that “a mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions” then students come home with broader and often more creative perspectives that are essential in responding to climate change and other problems facing humanity.
  2. Live more lightly. The sad fact is that U.S. students can study abroad anywhere, and simply by immersing in the local culture, live more lightly than they would at home. In fact, some informal research has shown that U.S. students on semester programs in countries like Costa Rica may actually have a smaller impact (including their air travel!) than had they stayed at home.
  3. Take small steps. By living abroad, students are exposed to – and often adopt – more ecological behaviors. Whether it is walking or bicycling more, air drying clothes, or on a more extreme level, doing away with toilet paper (hey, it happens!), these small actions build eco-consciousness as a way of life.
  4. Think “glocally.” One of our core challenges as a species is that we have evolved to respond to changes in our environment that are quick and local (e.g. a tiger charging), not slow and global (e.d. climate change). Studying abroad helps develop larger geopolitical and historical perspectives that allows students to better frame and wrap their heads around these non-intuitive, global issues.
  5. Expand our sense of belonging. I honestly don’t think we could do what we do to the environment or other countries if we really felt that we all belong here and are fundamentally interdependent with each other and all life. By making “foreign” cultures familiar, students recognize we are not so different after all and that we all have similar needs and desires and fears.

I believe we will only have “homeland security” and a truly livable planet when we realize the entire Earth is our homeland. What better way to become global citizens with a sense of environmental and social responsibility than encourage our future leaders to study abroad and expand their identity beyond cultural and national borders. These are changes that last a lifetime and beyond.