Originally published on The PIE News in July 2017
International educators spend their lives working with international students, but it’s easy to forget what it’s like to be one. Colleen Boland of Young American Expat reflects on some of the things that have surprised her as an American studying in the UK and Spain.
When I decided to embark on higher education abroad, I have to admit that I was pretty unprepared for the variances in education by country, perhaps due to a largely American worldview and a bit too much presumption. I did study abroad in Italy during my undergraduate degree, but it was through my American university, and the classes were therefore adapted to the American experience. My first truly different learning experience was earning a master’s in London, before embarking on my currently underway doctorate in Spain.
For any perfectionist student, grading is the first thing that strikes you. In England, I discovered through my first grade that the sliding scale does not reach 100. It’s as if no one is perfect enough to reach that level of excellence. And it makes sense, if you are comparing yourself with past greats. High 70s were an achievement, and 80 practically unobtainable. Getting a grade in the 60s, thought it’s not even close to failing, is difficult to swallow at first.
Spain in general grades on a 1-10 scale – a prospect that terrifies me, as I enjoy the wiggle room of the 100 scale (the ability to get an 84 instead of an 8, for example). But unlike England, 10 is an achievable number, reserved for the most excellent students. Luckily, in my doctorate, classes are pass/fail, with the assumption that if you’ve made it this far in education, you are going to produce acceptable work – and if not, you should discontinue the effort.
Attire and etiquette
I found that the UK classes had teachers that were a bit more formally attired than in Spain, but still a bit less formal than my professors from the US. Student style was also relatively casual. Of course, students don’t show up in sweatpants to class like they may on some US college campuses, because no one wears sweatpants outside of the gym. In Spain, the professors dress even more casually, sometimes as reflection of what they study (in my case, sociology professors seem to have a more artistic side!). Jeans and leggings are not out of place among the educational staff in Spain. Older school professors still wear a collared shirt, as they hail from more conservative days.
Eating during lectures is an absolute no-no in either country, perhaps reflecting the fact that it is less customary to “eat on the go” as we sometimes do in the US. The Spanish in particular are very careful to sit down for their meals, and set aside time for it, and sometimes that may mean if there isn’t time, then no eating at all. Water bottles are allowed. The discussion format in both UK and Spain seems to be more lecture-based than we may engage in stateside. It’s notable that American students seem to have more training in presenting and speaking in front of large groups.
In Spain, a class never starts on time, or ends on time. There are some professors that will be annoyed if you get there later than them, though. The Brits of course are a bit more punctual, as they are reputed to be!
Administration is a bit more laborious, complicated and bureaucratic in both the UK and Spain than in the US. Both my universities, the School of Oriental and African Studies at University of London and the Complutense University of Madrid, are public. Facilities are much more drab than you would find on an American campus that costs $40,000 a year. However, tuition for British students in the UK is up to £9,000 a year (it has nearly tripled in recent years, in the face of a lot of protest), and my doctorate in Spain is basically free.
And, because it’s public, the state documentation is very rigorous, and there are practically no exceptions to all of the mandatory forms and documentation that are required. In Spain, I have spent countless hours trying to get registered, literally waiting in line at the register for two hours one time, and having to go to banks to get taxes paid. It’s part of that bargain price!
I found that I gained a whole new appreciation for students in the United States who are not native English speakers, by having to study in a foreign language and communicate on an academic level. I also found that because of the European environment, students and professors are much more understanding of language issues and struggling with the native tongue.
In the UK it was a simple matter of setting the spellcheck to British English and double-checking for misspellings, but in Spain, of course, it has been more difficult. I have often encountered that people appreciate your effort, which I find very kind and encouraging. I have often had to ask fellow classmates to repeat something that was said, or for help understanding an assignment.
In sum, things are different, and it can throw you off. But the environment is usually welcoming, and the focus is on academia rather than the bells and whistles, which to a true lover of knowledge, can never be a bad thing!
Originally published on Young American Expat in 2017
Hi guys! Back again after way too long of a hiatus. I plan to correct that in the future! One of the things overwhelming my schedule this winter is wedding season, and let me tell you, in Spain we are different! I thought I’d highlight one of my favorites from just this past February, and also include some of the highlights from others I’ve been graciously invited to attend here! And on top of that, my own wedding and the fabulous Spanish guest list in attendance opened my eyes to some cultural differences I hadn't noticed before, even though I was already a seasoned Spanish wedding guest.
Our friends Almu and Nacho are obsessed with skiing so it only made sense they chose a winter wedding in a castle town north of Madrid, in the Province of Guadalajara! Siguenza is known for its Parador, a castle dating back to the 5th century that was remodeled by the Moors under their rule. In fact, the town has been ruled by Romans, Visigoths, Moors and Castilians!
Right after the run and the hostel´s huge breakfast spread, I went to get my hair done in a brief 30 minutes at the same place the bride (and probably everyone else, since the town is small!) got theirs done. The breakfast was important because Spanish weddings usually have the ceremony or the mass, followed by a long cocktail hour before dinner, so you can´t go into it on an empty stomach!
The wedding ceremony was Catholic and took place in the gorgeous Cathedral of Siguenza. The Bride had a spectacular winter cape that looked like something (classier) from the movie Frozen. In Spain, rather than bridesmaids and groomsmen, they have testigos (witnesses), usually only a couple, to sign that they bore witness to the union. However, Almu and Nacho are a fun and inclusive sort and they had quite a few testigos on each side. My husband Daniel and I were invited to be witnesses among several others, and Daniel had to rent coattails in order to be properly formal for the altar! I made sure to wear gloves and a wrap to also be properly dressed.
We got to take pictures with the bride and groom over the course of the cocktail, and finally they started ushering us into a great hall for dinner. Dinner has a first course, second course and dessert, all accompanied with generous amounts of wine, red or white alternating based on the dish. Dinner lasts a few hours, because Spaniards take time to enjoy each dish and of course, talk A LOT. Just like in America, the couple went from table to table greeting each of their guests, and the bride brought her bouquet to a couple at our table, giving them a little bit of a nudge to be the next ones engaged.
More to come, but in the meantime, practice your 12 hour straight drinking and eating skills if you are planning on attending a Spanish wedding!
Originally written for The PIE News September 2017
One sector that normally isn’t in the spotlight with respect to international trade is international education, writes Richie Santosdiaz, an expert in economic development and international trade, and founder of Young American Expat. People generally see exports and international business in terms of tangible products like manufactured goods (such as cars or food). With respect to services, people generally think of the financial sector. International education doesn’t commonly appear in conversations on trade, exports or international business. But it should.
International education is big business. According to data from the Institute of International Education, nearly one million international students are now enrolled in US universities, and contribute around $35.8 billion to the US economy.
The vast amounts of foreign direct investment US universities have made overseas also shows the importance of international education for the US economy. Taking a step beyond just affiliating themselves or forming partnerships with overseas universities. For example, the Middle East has benefited from investments from the American HE system, including New York University setting up an overseas campus in Abu Dhabi and Georgetown University setting up one in Qatar.
Enrolment: A changing American landscape
It is not news that college tuition in the USA is expensive, with the College Board saying the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2016–2017 school year is $33,480 at private colleges. This has created what many are calling a student loan crisis, which some argue could be worse than the 2008 financial crisis. Many students in America are not able to afford tuition and have no choice but to use loans, which a significant proportion of students are not able to pay back.
This has even had some wondering if college is worth it at all. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, undergraduate and graduate fall-term enrolment declined by 1.4% last year, to 19 million students. In comparison, in 2011 enrolment hit peaks of 20.6 million. Universities in America, more so than ever, have had to rely on international students to help keep enrolment up.
The USA has made gains from its strong education sector, which has benefited from international education exports. Even those with little background in the international education sector will realise that the USA is home to several global leading universities like Harvard, Yale and Princeton.
However, the USA is competing with the UK and many others in attracting international students. Industrialised English speaking nations like Canada, Australia and Ireland have their own prestigious universities, which rank on par with those in the USA. These countries are seeing much growth in their international education sector and are ambitious towards expansion.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, international education had a record-breaking 2015-16 in Australia, making the nation more than A$20 billion and confirming international education’s status as the country’s third-biggest earner and becoming its largest service export.
Ireland last year set a goal to make their international education sector worth €2 billion by 2020.
Also, international student enrolment at universities in Canada, Australia and Ireland has been improving for several years.
In Canada some universities have seen a huge surge in applicants, to the extent that they have to turn many qualified students down, due to a limited source of funding and places.
Additionally, many non-English speaking countries – both in industrialised nations and also emerging economies – now offer a significant proportion of their programs, particularly in postgraduate studies, in English. These include the likes of some of the best universities in the world, such as IESE and IE Business School in Spain and HEC Paris offering MBAs and other business degrees entirely in English.
Current political climate
Many countries, such as Canada, Australia and Ireland expect to see their enrolment increase even more given the past year with the current political climate in the USA and the UK.
In the US, President Trump has shown the world an “America First” approach, which is being felt with regards to international business and wider international trade. Headlines were made recently as President Trump reportedly floated potential cuts to the J-1 exchange visa program.
Meanwhile, countries like Ireland have actually made it more appealing for international students to work post-graduation. Recently Ireland doubled the time graduates can remain and find work after graduation, from 12 months to 24.
For the US, President Trump’s stance on immigration is not appealing to many considering the US for study. He may not be targeting international students per se, but his policy isn’t helping a sector that has been facing challenges of growing global competition.
Perhaps the growth of other nations is a wakeup call to make the international education sector great again.
Originally published on The PIE News April 2017
Students are growing ever more conscious of the investments they make when it comes to study abroad, and they want to know that the time and money they spend will translate to job opportunities post-graduation. Getting companies on board could help to ensure that’s the case, writes Richie Santosdiaz, study abroad advocate and economic development expert.
What inspired me to write this was a recent conversation with a friend from the USA whose younger sister was interested in pursuing a master’s degree overseas. The friend gave advice that the younger sister should only study abroad in the UK or on certain programs in Western Europe, Canada, and Australia, because it will be difficult to get a job in the USA afterwards – and that the countries mentioned are home to some of the most recognised universities globally. Naturally, at first I disagreed, but later recanted because in many ways that actually is a true statement.
Later, it made me think that actually, the link between studying abroad and getting a job is not as strong as it might have been in the past. A main reason is that study abroad is not as exclusive as in the past, which is great as more students are getting the opportunity to go abroad. There is still much work on this front, as what many initiatives such as in the USA with IIE’s Generation Study Abroad, particularly in the socio-economic and underrepresented minority backgrounds, but the numbers are improving.
This same argument is similar for undergraduate degrees in general, as well as master’s degrees and PhDs. In economic terms, this has created much more of a supply in the young educated workforce. Therefore, someone with a degree from, say, Oxford most likely will have a greater chance of getting a job afterwards than someone with a similar degree from an institution in an emerging economy, given that the competition is very high.
It dawned upon me, both from personal experience and current study abroad trends, that the ecosystem is not complete. Yes there is much passion and drive from universities, the US government, study abroad professionals, and alumni to an extent – but what about corporations? After all, corporations, both big and small, are the ones who mostly will be employing study abroad students after their studies.
For almost all students, a major factor in going abroad in the first place is to boost CVs and to increase their changes of employability with international experience. But the associated costs, coupled with outrageously expensive tuition fees in the USA, mean students have to be cautious with money. They have every right to ask if study abroad will get them a job after college, which some even questioning if college might be right for them at all.
Corporations are essential in getting the ecosystem complete with respect to study abroad. They not offer jobs for employees, but in addition, will employ study abroad alumni who most likely organically ended up working for X company. This will help get more alumni engaged as well to help drive causes like Generation Study Abroad.
It sounds simple and easy – yes, X company will definitely help study abroad causes. But that is a dream in itself. At the end of the day, companies have to be surviving financially. They will ask, “What is in this for me?”
To get more companies to join the ecosystem there has to be not just an acknowledgement that they play a vital and important role, but also an incentive to give their support. It’s like laws such as a smoking ban or seat belts – unless something is pushed on people, they will not change these habits naturally. It is not to say that companies should be forced to an extent as a seatbelt law but, there should be mechanisms that will encourage them to change habits more in favour of study abroad.
First, give companies ownership – partnership with respect to taking charge in boosting more job opportunities for ex-study abroad students. Rather than just creating an initiative or a campaign, make sure corporations are part of that decision-making process from design to implementation. In particular, study abroad alumni working in a company may be more willing to help out whenever possible as they know first-hands the opportunities study abroad gave to them.
Second, this might be controversial, but in whatever legal way possible to give tax breaks to hiring staff or some type of financial incentive. Money talks and corporations, both big and small, will pay attention if they can benefit financially. It might not be legal to make preferential treatment in hiring certain individuals, but, there might be possibilities with recruitment campaigns, job searching requirements, and bespoke hiring campaigns that can highlight and promote ex-study abroad students who have the international experience from studies and want to incorporate that in the workplace.
Finally, remind companies that helping promote study abroad can be an investment in a future workforce. It is very difficult in this day in age to be guaranteed a job, even in industries that once had a mentality that a job is for life. However, companies can foster talent at university and the study abroad student can be a great investment. For instance, they could create opportunities for study abroad students similar to the increasing graduate rotational management programs that some companies offer. A student can work for X company under the program for a year prior to graduation as an internship, and then they would be guaranteed a job under a graduate program, where they would commit to the company for a few years.
Companies and organisations in both the private and public sectors can do more to boost study abroad numbers through supporting young population in employment. Much needs to be done, but getting companies on board can be a great starting point. Companies need to be more engaged with the study abroad ecosystem. A student should not have to limit their study abroad choice based on the odds of getting a job afterwards, as all study abroad experiences can add value to our global workforce.
Originally published on The PIE News January 2017
When discussing how to increase participation in study abroad, we often talk about ‘underrepresented students’ as if they’re all the same – we need to take a different approach, argues Richie Santosdiaz, an economic development expert for PA Consulting and passionate advocate for international education.
When we talk about increasing participation in study abroad among underrepresented student groups, we must first understand what an underrepresented group is.
In the context of international education or even higher education in general in the USA, this is those who are not represented in proportion to the US general population. Visible ethnic heritage in recent memory – African, Hispanic, Asian, and Native Americans – gets much attention. Other factors such as religion, gender, sexual orientation and disability can mean students aren’t well represented. And students from families with low incomes are often mentioned, as well as first generation born Americans and first generation university educated families.
The stats show that study abroad numbers are becoming more diverse, which is great news, but there is still some way to go.
As an example, figures from NAFSA, compiled from data from IIE’s Open Doors Report and the Department of Education, show that ethnic minorities who are enrolled in universities in the USA are not reflected in the numbers that study abroad.
Is there enough support for underrepresented groups in international education?
As an advocate for international education, I am thrilled to see an increase in the number of young Americans who are interested in learning about the world and committing semesters, a year, or even completing entire degrees overseas. However, I’m convinced that we can do more to help encourage more young people from traditionally underrepresented groups—whether it be by heritage, ethnic background, or income—to study overseas.
I propose the following three points below as a starting point:
1. Don’t lump all underrepresented groups togetherWhen I’ve seen this topic presented, often people will lump underrepresented groups into one category. With international education, it is incorrect and inaccurate to do this because you will not understand the group in detail.
When I studied abroad over a decade ago, completing semesters in Argentina and France, I was one of few that one would classify as a visible minority. Also, in both programs, almost everyone who participated came from middle- and upper-middle-class families. So within the lumped class you already have two subgroups, based on economic background.
Solutions to encourage ethnic minorities from middle and upper-middle-class backgrounds to study abroad would not necessarily be the same as those ethnic minorities from low-income households. Ethnic minorities from low-income households are likely to have an economic drive that would prevent them from going abroad, as would Caucasians from low-income households.
“Scholarships alone will not encourage more underrepresented groups to study abroad”Institutions should be listening so they are able to identify and understand who exactly are their so-called ‘underrepresented groups’ in detail, for most may have various subgroups within that group that have different needs.
2. Don’t assume scholarships alone will encourage more underrepresented students to study abroadInstitutions are proud, as they should be, to offer an increasing amount of scholarships for those of visible minority backgrounds. Many universities and study abroad institutions, such as CIEE, give out at least partial scholarships to students in underrepresented groups. There are portals that aid in minority access to scholarships, such as Diversity Abroad, which primarily post opportunities for students who are ethnic minorities or from low-income or first-generation backgrounds.
Nevertheless, scholarships alone will not encourage more underrepresented groups to study abroad. Being an ethnic minority does not mean you are poor; some students from first-generation families and ethnic minority families might struggle more with their families’ and friends’ attitudes towards international education.
In my case, I come from a first-generation ethnic minority background and a strong middle-class family in suburban Chicago. The scholarships I received on merit and as an ethnic minority did help tremendously, but the biggest challenge I found was actually trying to sell the idea of study abroad to my family in the first place. They asked me, “Richie, we immigrated and worked hard here in America, and you want to go abroad and leave – why?” I was definitely persistent at the time, as I secretly hid my application forms and only told them I got accepted to study in Buenos Aires three months before the start of the program.
When my younger brother and sister both went abroad, my parents were much more open to the idea. But for me, I had to face the barriers to opportunities that many first generation students and ethnic minority families experience.
Another challenge was that there were instances of both unintentional and intentional racism that most of my study abroad classmates would never have to face. With this topic, other forms of support like mentoring and support prior to and during the study abroad term would have been needed.
3. Make sure you know you know the subgroups you are targeting and are getting the community involvedFor universities looking to boost numbers of students studying abroad, it’s important not only to understand the subgroups of the underrepresented population, but also to get them involved.
I remember a while back when there was controversy over a hearing in Congress where a committee group was discussing issues around birth control. The group was only about five people and all were men. How can you discuss birth control and not have women involved?
The same rule applies here. For decisions that will affect underrepresented groups, those groups need to be involved. This includes not just giving feedback but also involvement in the decision-making of policies, incentives, and other initiatives that would aim to encourage more underrepresented groups to study abroad.
We can encourage more underrepresented college students in the USA to pursue international education opportunities
Not lumping underrepresented students together or assuming that only ethnic minority scholarships will solve the problem, and truly understanding the underrepresented and getting them involved in the process of reform will be great starting points for boosting the number of diverse students in international education, especially those who are first-generation or visible ethnic minorities, or who come from lower-income families.
In an increasingly globalized world, study abroad and international education are opportunities that should be attainable by all American college students. I am grateful myself to have had the opportunity. It has clearly impacted me, writing this article in London where I now live and work. It was a stepping stone to my international career and I hope it will be for all future generation American students as well.
Originally written in Summer 2016 when Young American Expat had a blog and Colleen was officially part of the team
When my friend and fellow expat Richie asked me to contribute to his awesome blog, I puzzled a bit over what to say at first. I have sometimes silently ridiculed expat forums (Americans –like myself-- complaining about a lack of peanut butter) but still secretly used them to get out of a jam (not to look for jam, most of Europe does have that). I started out an expat in London for about 3 years before moving to Madrid, where I have been for another 3 years and counting!
What I realized about expat resources is that they are essential, even if we are grown adults sometimes endlessly complaining about the (obvious) drawbacks of expat life that we brought upon ourselves. It’s like moving from one city to another in the US; we don’t have the same experience in the new city so we need to rely on other resources and a little extra support to keep up with the pack. And, just as anybody who moves has discovered, that little extra support sometimes comes in the form of relating to our past, more familiar experience.
When I struggled to land a job after finishing grad school in London, Richie was there as my sounding board. It just wasn’t a formalized and literal sounding board. And as I am currently changing jobs while finishing my last year of a doctorate program in Madrid, expat job forums are my lifeline. But I guess I shouldn’t spend the whole post confessing to my previous suspicion of expat culture; clearly I have finally realized it is an organic and necessary thing! Instead, I’ll go into why the expat life is for me, and what the expat life in Madrid is like.
I am lucky because I moved to Madrid with a best friend and Madrid native already lined up; I met Teresa at grad school in London. Sadly, I had never studied Spanish, so I was off to a rough start with my only friend speaking perfect English and a job conducted entirely in English. Since then, I’ve slowly progressed, with my doctoral program requiring Spanish and gradually expanding my friend group.
Which is the advantage of my situation—most of my friends are Spanish and not expat. Again, I have less of a need for expat support because my (newlywed!) husband Dani is an (involuntarily) captive audience if I need to rant about his city or culture (it helps that he is a Madrileño that studied high school in the US and can speak to me in an accent that is more American than my own, and understands my culture almost too perfectly). Basically, I’ve been warmly invited into the Spanish culture since day one, which (from reading expat forums), I have heard isn’t the norm. I owe a lot to Teresa. Most Spaniards I know have friends since diapers or at least high school (well Teresa does too, but has allowed me to join the diaper circle anyway), unlike my American friendships, most of which I have formed at the earliest in high school and usually later in college. It’s hard to break in not so much because of an unfriendliness thing, or because of the perpetual expat language barrier, but more because you’ve been missing out on inside jokes for 25 years.
And the Spanish culture that I sometimes huff and puff about? Well I can’t speak for all of Spain, because like the States it is vastly diverse (arguably more so given the longer history and different languages), but I can (conditionally) rave about young professional life in Madrid. Myth one busted: I haven’t witnessed Spanish laziness--they DO work hard—at least all the people I know do. Myth two confirmed: They party hard (and relax hard, if that’s a thing??), and I am still up for it even as I approach 30!
We work from 9 to 10 in the morning until 8 or later, Monday through Friday (some places Friday is half day), and if you live in the center that means you can sleep in until 8:30 am or so, unlike in early-morning America. Also unlike early morning-America, there’s not so much room at the end of the day to have a second life (club sports, extra-curricular CV enhancers), though for football games once or twice a week, we just bolt out of work as soon as possible to drink and snack until 11 or 12 anyway. I hit the gym in the morning, but others do it during lunch (which is longer here, at least an hour, sometimes two) or after work (yes, that means getting to dinner around 10 or 11).
Weekends are worth the work. Tapas and drinks with friends can start around midday and go on all day, lunches last for hours. You can always eat outside and in the sun for a steal compared to other countries (though our salaries are indeed much lower); beers can be as low as a buck and my beloved, and quite decent, glass of wine, around $1.50. And they always arrive with a delicious free snack (cured meats, cheese, olives, nuts), which I now feel so entitled to, becoming irate when I don’t receive it in other parts of Spain or when I visit home in the US. And same for dinner, that too lasts forever, alongside the summer sun.
The vacation also is a plus. We get about three weeks off in August (so yeah, backpack through Asia or adjoining Europe, you got time), one off at Christmas, and several three day weekends. Those three day weekends are like mini vacations every three to four weeks throughout the year. It means that partying hard can be taken to the coast, or if you want to stop drinking (for like a second) you can go hiking in the North, or explore the beautiful cities, histories and cuisines all throughout Spain.
It’s impossible to get into detail here; I’ll save it for the next post. But just a little teaser: Saturday, take a-less-than-one-hour drive out to the countryside with your friends and enjoy barbecue while “bullfighting” on a ranch in a small ring with an angry cow (i.e., just run from it and let the more experienced farmhand snuggle up to it afterwards) while the sun sets at a perfect non-humid, bug-free 75 degrees and you can laze by the pool with legendary Enrique Iglesias singing in the background and a mixed drink (or several) in hand, before taking your chartered bus back to Madrid. All for less than a night out in DC. Cheers to the expat life, I’ll try to remind myself, and you, of the drawbacks later.