How can studying abroad help develop “global citizens” – leaders who have a sense of belonging and responsibility both with the peoples of the Earth and with the Earth itself?

In my last post about program design and management I shared about my work with The Forum on Education Abroad‘s Subcommittee on Sustainability Standards and how we offered revisions to their Standards of Good Practice and Code of Ethics documents in four areas:

  1. Program Design and Management
  2. Student Learning
  3. Staff Training and Office Management
  4. Promotion

In this second of a four part blog series, I will flesh out ways we can support students learning about sustainability while studying abroad, using CAPE, my consultancy which develops Custom Academic Programs in Ecovillages as a case study. The question we asked was:

“How can a study abroad organization foster faculty, staff and student awareness, of the impact of its program and its students on the natural and social environment and actively encourage its program staff and students to minimize behaviors that will negatively impact this environment?

Here are five suggestions we came up with:

1) Encourage and support overseas faculty and staff awareness of local environmental issues (e.g. water, energy, food).

climate-change-space-art-7Challenge faculty to develop a project, assignment, or discussion that connects a topic in their curriculum with some aspect of sustainability (e.g. indigenous wisdom, life cycles, diversity, limits to growth). Stay alert to opportunities for student engagement with international eco-initiatives such as the Activism Projects put on by or 48GoGreen’s International Online Eco-Film Competition. I will share such opportunities when I find them (a good reason to subscribe to this blog, hint, hint).  Other resources to get you started include Middlebury College’s Going Green Guide for Schools Abroad Directors and Transitions Abroad’s Responsible Travel Handbook.

CAPE programs are all about sustainable community development so awareness of local and global environmental issues is a prerequisite for all staff and faculty. We set up RSS feeds and Google Alerts and share relevant resources with each other. We also tend to hire MAs with diverse backgrounds in the Sciences, Arts and Humanities, and the Social Sciences as we believe in an integrated and transdisciplinary pedagogy (and Ph.D.s are often so specialized, it is occasionally difficult for them to bridge disciplines).

2) Orient students to the local and global environmental and social impacts of their program participation.

… Not to make them feel guilty, but to help them understand these interconnections and further appreciate this opportunity to travel and study in a foreign land.  Suggest they read Astrid Jirka’s article on Sustainable Travel and Study Abroad or my article on Greening Study Abroad. Help them learn about climate change, perhaps using the short four-part video series I created on What is climate change?  Where are we heading?  How are we responding? and What’s up with Offsetting?


3) Make students aware of contrasting cultural norms and practices and their corresponding environmental impacts.

Given that the U.S. has one of the largest ecological footprints of any country, students can study just about anywhere and lower their impacts simply by adopting local cultural norms and practices such as conserving water, air drying clothes or (God forbid!) doing away with toilet paper.

Some articles I have used to support students awareness of their “cultural baggage” include Richard Slimbach’s Mindful Traveler, Peggy McIntosh’s famous White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack and the Ethical Traveler’s Thirteen Tips for the Accidental Ambassador.

4) Provide student opportunities to reduce and/or account for their impacts.

An easy way is to encourage students to “like” the Green Passport page on Facebook and pledge to minimize their impact on the environment, act in culturally respectful ways, engage with locals and give back to their host communities.

If you want to go further, check out Earth Deeds, which offers online tools for groups to measure and meaningfully account for their unavoidable CO2 emissions.  I started Earth Deeds in 2012, but the idea came to me back in 2001 when I was running study abroad programs to ecovillages and felt we needed to do something about our travel emissions. Students measured their CO2 and we created a fund for each program to account for these emissions.  But rather than give money to a carbon offsetter, we scrapped the idea of carbon neutrality and contributed funds to wonderful projects right in our host communities (e.g. solar cookers in Senegal, electric rickshaws in India, reforestation everywhere).  Earth Deeds calls this system onsetting and we feel it resolves most of the challenges and inefficiencies associates with offsetting.  We’ve worked with Pacific Lutheran University, CISabroad, and other organizations and now have the ability for students to contribute time in lieu of money, which can work particularly well with service learning and volunteer opportunities on study abroad programs.

5) Provide opportunities for students to pursue meaningful and socially responsible engagement with the local community.

Encourage students to walk, bike or take public transportation and to shop locally. Arrange opportunities for students to live (and spend time!) with local host families to help them understand and integrate into the local culture.

Service learning provides further opportunities for students to engage with and give back to their local host communities. They get to work on real-life problems, apply what they’ve been learning, and become active local citizens. The Generator School Network is an online community and resource for service-learning professional development, and networking.

These are just a few ways to bring sustainability more into the curriculum and daily lives of students while studying abroad, but it is by no means an exhaustive list. Please add your ideas, suggestions and questions in the comments so we can further develop this topic together. Thanks!