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Studying Abroad in the New World Economy
By Jennifer Coffman (Univeristy of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

2000 Copyright © American Anthropology Association

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that many American students say they travel abroad for international experience and knowledge to prepare themselves to work in the “new global economy” (Desruisseaux 1999a). Educators and administrators have echoed this sentiment, noting that “internationalizing” American higher education will enable students to gain “global competence” and “international awareness” (Afonso 1994). While concepts such as “global competence” remain nebulous, what is clear is that things international are considered essential to America’s success in the mythical space of the new millennium. Colleges and universities, the argument goes, must provide workers, scholars, and leaders with so-called international perspectives. University study abroad programs play an obvious part in reaching these important, if narrowly economic, goals.

With so much to gain from studying abroad, it may seem curious that while the number of Americans studying abroad continues to rise, the length of time spent abroad is diminishing (Desruisseaux 1999a). Notions of long-term “cultural immersion” are being displaced by ideas of “international awareness,” a low-level perceptual metaphor which seems to be in line with many in-and-out study abroad itineraries. A case in point: after studying abroad as part of a four-month program to Kenya in 1989, I was the only student out of 25 to sustain an immersion of sorts; for the other 24 people in my cohort, 1989 marked their first and last trip to Africa.

Perhaps these figures are not surprising. After all, most of us would not expect a large number of undergraduates to enter graduate programs which would require attaching themselves to “exotic field sites.” But how about these figures? For the academic year 1997-1998, only 606 American undergraduate students participated in study abroad programs to Kenya, and none for more than a year. I say only 606 students, because, in contrast, over five times that number of Kenyan (3,260) undergraduate students were enrolled, and invested, in US colleges and universities during that same period, and 3,745 the following year (Open Doors 1999). While most American undergraduates who have studied abroad explain that they did so to add an international experience to their education (and not to establish a field site to which they would return for future studies), Kenyan undergraduates come to the United States to pursue a degree (Desruisseaux 1998). A college degree from the US is valuable within Kenya, but the fact that a Kenyan student spends four or more years – and a good deal of foreign revenue – here earning his or her degree has led one analyst to tout higher education in the US as “one of the few remaining export industries on the rise” (Haigh 1994).

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, foreign students currently account for 3% of the total enrollment in US colleges and universities and contribute approximately $13 billion to the US economy through tuition and fees, room and board, entertainment, and other purchases (Desruisseaux 1999b). An estimated 65% of all foreign students enrolled in US institutions of higher education cited personal and family resources as their primary means of support, and an additional 10% of foreign students receive other funding from outside of the United States (Desruisseaux 1999b). With more fellow nationals enrolled in American colleges and universities than any other African country, Kenyans account for 1% of foreign students in the US; 4,945 students enrolled in undergraduate and graduate programs during the 1998-1999 academic year (Open Doors 1999). Based on the above figures, a conservative estimate of Kenyans’ annual contributions to the US economy would be $97 million in foreign revenue. These figures have prompted such bald economically strategic statements as the following found in an Institute of International Education publication: “[l]ocal companies fail to realize international university students may be the last untapped economic development resource in most communities” (Scott 1995). Furthermore, international students, most of whom come from elite families, are described as ideal, and even long-term, business opportunities,

"Graduates become corporate leaders [in their country of origin] who could make ideal contacts for local exporters or could influence decisions to locate a manufacturing facility. They may encourage friends and colleagues to visit their U.S. ‘home’ for business or pleasure. An international student who leaves with a good feeling is a life-long advertisement for the community." (Scott 1995)

This assumes, of course, that these US-educated foreign nationals do return to their home country upon the completion of their degrees.

Most Kenyans do not regard American students who study abroad in Kenya in quite the same way. Although study abroad participants may ultimately contribute gifts or money to the households of their African hosts, and perhaps in some cases something of grander scale, the dozens of Kenyan host families with whom I have spoken have no illusions of an international entrepreneurial or corporate endeavor being executed on their behalf by some Birkenstock-wearing student who stayed with them for a month. Though the goals of American students to study abroad and African students who come to the US to pursue a degree may be roughly similar – learning societal and workforce skills to prosper in an increasingly international context – the relationship between the manifestations and functions of these goals for Americans versus Kenyans is unequal, unequal in terms of numbers who participate, in terms of length of stay, in terms of capital flow and profit. This inequality is compounded by the fact that Americans most often own the educational institutions at both ends, in the US and in Kenya. One question these relations raise is who, exactly, is profiting in this new world economy of higher education? Is Africa again on the “giving” end of an extractive capitalism? Considering the legacy of colonialism in Kenya, it seems there is nothing at all new about the new world economy.


Jan Afonso, “What Internationalization Means,” in Open Doors 1993/94: Report on International Educational Exchange, ed. Todd. M. Davis (New York: Institute of International Education, 1994).

Paul Desruisseaux, “More American Students Than Ever Before Are Going Overseas for Credit,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 11 December 1998.

Paul Desruisseaux, “15% Rise in American Students Abroad Shows popularity of Non-European Destinations,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 10 December 1999a.

Paul Desruisseaux, “Foreign Students Continue to Flock to the U.S.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 10 December 1999b.

Michael Haigh, “Education as Export,” in Open Doors 1993/94: Report on International Educational Exchange, ed. Todd. M. Davis (New York: Institute of International Education, 1994).

Open Doors website, “Foreign Students by Academic Level and Place of Origin,” Table 2.1, (Link is currently dead. Initially retrieved 28 December 1999).

Robert L. Scott, “International Students: Are Communities Paying Attention?” in Open Doors 1994/95: Report on International Educational Exchange, ed. Todd. M. Davis (New York: Institute of International Education, 1995).

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