Allison Ewing-Cooper and Mariah A Nunes, University of Arizona
Studying abroad correlates with many indicators of student success, including higher graduation rates, more job opportunities, and diverse skill sets. One study reported 90% of graduates who studied abroad landed a job within six months of graduation, almost double the average of college graduates (IES Abroad, 2016). Another study found 84% of study abroad alumni reported their experience abroad taught them valuable workplace skills (AIFS, 2013).
There is also widespread interest in studying abroad among students. The American Council on Education found that 75% of surveyed students believed that college students should study abroad. Another study found that 48% of high school seniors reported they wanted to study abroad (cited by Malmgren & Galvin, 2008). However, the actual number of students who study abroad is much smaller. NASFA (2019) reported that in the 2016–17 school year, 332,727 American college students studied abroad (about 1.6% of all U.S. college students).
While many organizations like the National Association of Foreign Student Advisers (NAFSA) and universities push for increases in studying abroad, the factors why students do and do not study abroad have not been widely studied, especially with regard to the impact of academic advisors. Malmgren and Galvin (2006) described five obstacles that students must overcome to study abroad, which they call the Five Fs of Study Abroad (finances, academic fit, faculty/advisor support, friends/family, and fear). They argue that universities need to acknowledge each of these obstacles and work with students to overcome them if they want to increase study abroad participation. Raby and Valeau (2005) cited a study where students revealed the main barriers to studying abroad to be inadequate program offerings, inadequate information provided, and lack of advising. Brux and Fry (2010) noted that often students do not study abroad due to institutional factors, including lack of program offerings and encouragement by advisors. Academic advisors play a unique and critical role in students’ academic journeys, and therefore have the important job of promoting study abroad programs (Stockwell & Zahorik, 2006).
This article has two goals. The first goal is to analyze the results of a survey on why students choose to, or choose not to, study abroad, using Malmgren and Galvin’s (2006) Five Fs of Study Abroad. The second goal is to share stories and recommendations for how advisors can help students overcome the five barriers.
Sixty-eight graduating seniors completed a survey (53 females, 14 males, 1 other) approved by the University of Arizona’s IRB. The survey was emailed to 600 students who had applied to graduate in the upcoming spring, summer, and fall semesters. Since all participants were graduating seniors, the decision of whether to study abroad or not had already been made. The respondents’ average age was 22.3 years old (range: 21–35). Sixty-three percent identified themselves as Caucasian; 24% as Latinx; 6.3% as Black/African-American; 2.5% as Asian; and 1.3% as Pacific Islander. Seventy-one percent of respondents were in-state students, and 29% were out-of-state students. Ten percent of respondents were transfer students, and 22% reported being first generation college students.
Thirty-one students studied abroad, and 37 did not study abroad. All students studied abroad (or decided not to) pre-COVID-19 pandemic (Fall 2019 or earlier). Students studied abroad in 19 countries, with the most popular being Italy (7 students), the United Kingdom (4), and Guatemala (4). The majority (51%) studied abroad in Summer with 30% in Spring and 18% in Fall. The majority (55%) studied abroad in their junior year.
If students indicated they studied abroad, they selected which factors influenced their decision and chose the number one factor. If they did not study abroad, they checked the factors that influenced their decision not to go abroad and the number one factor. The tables below display their answers.
Why did you study abroad?
Why did you not study abroad?
Recommendations for Advisors
Universities and advisors cannot eliminate all barriers for all students, but they can help students overcome their individual concerns. In the survey, 78 percent of students who did not study abroad reported they would have if the factors that prevented them were removed. So, how can advisors support students’ study abroad decisions?
Finances. Finances played a big role in why students decided to and especially decided not to study abroad. While advisors cannot directly impact a student’s financial situation, advisors can provide clear information about financial aid and scholarships during advising appointments and on departmental websites. At many institutions, there are study abroad sites where students pay their regular tuition and that accept all university scholarships. This information needs to be apparent to students on all marketing materials and should be regularly communicated by advisors when discussing abroad options.
When Student A (who did study abroad) met with her academic advisor about studying abroad, her advisor provided encouragement and resources that led her to discover a $500 university sponsored travel grant. The advisor introduced Student A to a study abroad coordinator who provided more information about eligibility requirements, application deadlines, and the difference between grants and scholarships. Student A applied for and earned the $500 travel grant which she used to purchase her flight.
Academic fit. Academic fit was the second most selected reason why students studied abroad, after wanting to live and travel internationally. Advisors can play a significant role in showing students how study abroad classes fit into their graduation plans, by building a study abroad semester into a student’s individual plan. Websites can also provide clear examples of student schedules and how abroad classes fulfill specific degree requirements. Additionally, they can work closely with faculty to facilitate study abroad transfer credit articulation agreements.
Student A, like many students, changed her major during her first year. While waiting for an advising appointment for a new potential major, she found materials about a department-led study abroad program, including information on courses she could take and how they applied to that major. She declared that major and studied abroad through the program she learned about on that first day of major exploration. The study abroad program made the major more attractive because information was clearly advertised and the advisor assured the student she could still graduate in four years as the study abroad classes would fulfill degree requirements.
Meanwhile, Student B (who did not study abroad) was a transfer student and was concerned about graduating in a timely manner. Student B never spoke to anyone about studying abroad nor did anyone speak to her about going abroad. She was convinced it would delay her graduation (this was not necessarily true) as she assumed the classes would not fit into her academic plan. However, had an academic advisor or faculty member presented on a study abroad program for her major or sent her a major-specific email, she would have immediately called her mom, checked her savings account, and made plans.
Family/Friends. Advisors should not discount the impact of those closest to students. Thirty percent of students who studied abroad reported that another student encouraged them to go abroad. Advisors can ask students to tell their stories on websites or organize study abroad alumni panels. Advisors could also work with study abroad offices to create family Q&A pages on their websites. To address concerns of work and family obligations, advisors can promote shorter programs, like summer, winter, or alternative spring break programs.
Student A’s older sister studied abroad and had a fantastic experience. In her case, the barrier of getting support from her parents had already been overcome. Not only were Student A’s parents familiar with the university’s support systems and processes, they also understood their daughter would grow in cultural competency and gain important career skills. Meanwhile, Student B did not have any family members who studied abroad while at college, nor had her friends studied abroad.
Faculty/Advisor Support. When asked if anyone at the university encouraged them to study abroad, 28% said a professor or instructor and 25% said an academic advisor. Since students often have more regular contact with advisors than faculty members or study abroad employees, advisors can be the biggest advocates for programs. Advisors can ask about study abroad routinely in their appointments and follow up with recommended programs of study.
Student A’s academic advisor and faculty supported her. While enrolled in an introductory major class, she received emails promoting a specific study abroad program. Her instructor led that program abroad the following summer and was active in recruiting students. In her major’s department, faculty members and advisors invited students to discuss the study abroad process with them.
However, this is not the case for all students. One survey respondent wrote, “The entire process seemed time consuming and overwhelming.” Another said, “I wanted to, but I just kinda didn't. Never got around to making the plans for it.” If these students had faculty or academic advisors who actively brought up and encouraged studying abroad, this barrier might have been overcome. Exposure to study abroad information and welcoming invitations to reach out for support are things academic advisors can easily provide.
Fear. As with all unfamiliar experiences, advisors can help allay student fears. Advisors can ask students about their concerns and validate their feelings while providing facts. Departmental websites can also provide student testimonials where students share their worries and how the department/school addressed their concerns.
Fears can vary based on current events. When Student A was exploring studying abroad, Europe had experienced several high-profile terrorist attacks. She met with a study abroad coordinator at the advice of her academic advisor and learned how to use resources such as the U.S. State Department’s travel advisory website, which helped her overcome her apprehension. Student B’s main fear was not graduating on time, which may have been alleviated by an informative advisor.
Current events often show negative images and events in foreign locations so it is crucial for academic advisors to show empathy towards students’ fear. One survey respondent even wrote that the media discouraged them from studying abroad. Encouraging students to do research, such as in the case of Student A, not only helps students become more informed global citizens, but could also be the difference between a student going abroad or not.
It is critical to mention that all data were collected pre-COVID-19, so it is unknown how students’ decisions about studying abroad may be impacted by the pandemic. It is possible that in future terms students may have increased concerns (fear) about global public health issues and international travel.
Additional Barriers. Survey results uncovered two additional barriers. One student wrote, “GPA wasn’t high enough,” when asked why they did not study abroad (“failing to meet eligibility”). Program eligibility is a built-in barrier. Academic advisors could work with students proactively to avoid this barrier. Asking students if they are interested in studying abroad early and discussing program requirements could motivate students to maintain appropriate GPAs and give them time to raise their GPAs if necessary.
Another student wrote, “would not have time to enjoy being abroad if I studied at the same time.” This example illustrates that not all students understand the purpose of studying abroad (“fundamental understanding”). Most programs limit the number of credits students take so as to not overwhelm them with coursework while experiencing a new culture. This student might have felt that studying abroad would set them up to fail, whereas an academic advisor could have intervened and informed them that programs are designed to support them and help them grow academically while also experiencing what their host country has to offer. The advisor could share research that shows students who study abroad have higher graduation rates and post college career outcomes (IES Abroad, 2016) and could also connect the student with others who have studied abroad previously so they can share their experiences.
Student A and B are this paper’s authors, so we can personally testify to how the Five Fs impacted our study abroad decisions. We later both worked as academic advisors and encountered students asking questions about each of these barriers. Academic advisors have the institutional knowledge, connections, and compassion to help students address all Five Fs of study abroad and can proactively work with students to inform and motivate them to meet specific program eligibility requirements. Students need advisor approval and support; without it, they are unlikely to study abroad.
Director of Academic Advisor and Student Services
College of Social and Behavioral Sciences
University of Arizona
Mariah A Nunes
Curriculum Integration Manager, Arizona Abroad Locations
University of Arizona
AIFS. (2013). Study abroad outcomes. www.aifsabroad.com
Brux, J. M., & Fry, B. (2010). Multicultural students in study abroad: Their interests, their issues, and their constraints. Journal of Studies in International Education, 14(5), 508–527.
Malmgren, J., & Galvin, J. (2006, September). Effective advising for study abroad. Academic Advising Today, 29(3). https://nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/Effective-Advising-for-Study-Abroad.aspx
IES Abroad. (2016). Career outcomes of study abroad students. https://www.iesabroad.org/study-abroad/benefits
NASFA. (2019). Trends in U.S. study abroad. https://www.nafsa.org/Policy_and_Advocacy/Policy_Resources/Policy_Trends_and_Data/Trends_in_U_S__Study_Abroad/
Raby, R. L., & Valeau, E. J. (2005). Community college international education: Looking back to forecast the future. New Directions for Community Colleges, 138, 5–14.
Stockwell, K., & Zahorik, D. (2006, February). Continuous improvement and advising. Academic Advising Today, 29(1). https://nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/Continuous-Improvement-and-Advising.aspx
Cite this article using APA style as: Ewing-Cooper, A., & Nunes, M.A. (2021, June). The role of academic advisors in helping students overcome the five Fs of study abroad. Academic Advising Today, 44(2). [insert url here]