The Benefits of International Exchange Programs

Posted by Jamie Goodwin on

One summer in the mid ‘90s, I traveled to Caracas, Venezuela.  A high-school student from the Indianapolis suburbs, I lived with a host family, immigrants from Haiti, in their downtown high-rise apartment. Over the summer I chowed on ‘arepas’ (fried corn meal stuffed with a salty, dry cheese), cruised the edge of the valley with chamos (amigos) proud to show off their city, and lingered around any table, face to face with people whose lives I had never imagined, striving to understand and be understood. 

After returning to Indiana, it remained difficult for my adolescent mind to conceptualize my friends’ concurrent life in South America. It sounds silly now, but I had no framework back then to think that their lives in another country were just as ‘real’ as mine, and were happening at the same time. 

Many think that travel to another country is a luxury that only the fortunate few may afford. Educators in the global age, however, realize that reflective, immersive, cross-cultural experiences are a transformational pedagogy. In 2008 the American Association of Colleges and Universities labeled it “a high-impact practice.” 

In fact international exchange holds promise for all students, not just the high achievers. According to Glossari, a federally funded study through the University of Georgia, study abroad can systematically produce improved academic performance upon return and higher graduation rates, especially for at-risk students. 

Don Rubino, director of research for the Glossari project said, “Our data do show that underprepared college students (SATs <1000) obtain particular benefit, in terms of college graduation GPA, when they do study abroad in college. This leads us to conclude that study abroad should not be restricted just to elite students. Elite students generally do just fine, but we should make special efforts to make study abroad accessible to the very students who have too often been deemed ‘too risky’ to be ‘distracted’ by studying abroad.” 

The K-12 educational arena in Indiana is awakening to the power of global learning. School districts such as Kokomo Consolidated and Batesville Community Schools developed unique strategies, providing all their teachers with the impetus and resources to travel. Kokomo incorporates travel into teacher’s compensation package. Batesville has developed a strong relationship with their community foundation. 

Covenant Christian welcomes thirty plus international students to their school each year, and pairs each one with a caring host family. Lynhurst 7th and 8th grade Center re-branded their school identity, celebrating an ethos built around their immense diversity. Curiously, each of these successes is led by a global champion, compelled by their personal international story. 

Despite growing enthusiasm, barriers to academic exchange remain. Statewide many districts explicitly forbid, let alone encourage or expect, funding and paid leave for teacher professional development abroad. Nor do Indiana colleges and universities systematically send their pre-service teachers abroad for student teaching. As of 2013 only one half of Indiana teachers had traveled outside the United States. A minority of Indiana schools have an international sister school. Finally, less than 1% of Indiana students study abroad in their K-12 years, according to The Longview Foundation. 

Boarding an airplane and sleeping in another country doesn’t automatically make for a transformational experience either. Researchers have categorized trips with Americans who travel in herds, look for the burger joint in every town, and mainly stay away from the locals as “low-road” experiences. “High-road” academic exchange includes immersing oneself as fully as possible, losing touch for a time with home in order to “go native” or establish a new framework of thought, that of the host culture. Consistent reflection on the experiences abroad also ushers travelers into insight and growth. 

Preparing students for life in the global age is now an educational imperative. Incoming executive hopefuls for major Indiana businesses are now required to have experience living abroad, according to Jane Gehlhausen of the Indianapolis Mayor’s Office. The U.S. Department of Commerce Export Assistance Center of Indianapolis reported the approximate value of Indiana exports in 2014 as $35.4 billion, supported by more than 8,000 Indiana companies engaged in international trade. 

For young Americans there can be little doubt that global competency is key to 21st century education and their subsequent futures. Although citizens of the world's most developed economy and flourishing democracy, students in U.S. high schools and colleges will be mostly selling to and buying from the world and collaborating across cultures when they graduate. "The world will demand it of them, we must demand it of our education system," said Stephanie Bell-Rose, former president of the Goldman-Sachs foundation. 

On a 2014 trip to China with their daughters, President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama affirmed the importance of global education. Mrs. Obama said it is critically important that young people learn about what’s going on not just here in America, but around the world. “Because when it comes to the challenges we face, soon, all of you will be leading the way. You’ll be discovering the cures, inventing the technologies, building the businesses, and making the laws that will shape our future for generations to come. And you’ll need to do these things together, working with others around the world – so you’ll need to be familiar with cultures, languages, and traditions that are very different from your own.” 

Over the past 20 years, I’ve had a front-row seat to the power of international exchange on the minds and hearts of Indiana’s educators and students, and can’t wait for the next adventure. If you are a thought leader in Indiana, where will you go to grow in 2016? 


Jamie is the Executive Director of Global Indiana, a nonprofit consortium for international exchange. She and her husband Andy are incurable wanderlusts, raising their son Theo to love languages and cultures, on the Westside of Indianapolis. Together, they are leading an immersion-experience to Seville, Spain during Holy Week 2016. Find out more at


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