The value of the liberal arts through applied global learning

“The personal growth achieved via study abroad comes through intentional reflection on the challenges that arise from experiential education”

Crises inspire reflection. After suffering a loss or enduring catastrophe, it is only natural to reevaluate one’s choices and ask, “what is actually most important and valuable?”

Now, perhaps more than ever as students have returned to campus, they are questioning higher education’s return on investment. Students now look more intensely at the value of their experience through a different lens that includes both personal and professional growth to prepare for an uncertain future.

The Covid-19 pandemic changed a lot in college enrolment. The threat of contagion and subsequent necessity for isolation turned the traditional, in-person, campus-based approach on its head. Gone were the day-to-day experiential and social aspects of college that, for many, made the cost of matriculating worthwhile.

And many students (and parents) are pointing with cynical, questioning fingers to two  academic and experiential foundations that echo throughout missions, visions, values and strategic plans–the liberal arts and global education.

While many studies have been conducted to show the financial benefits of a liberal arts degree, the true value of education is, in many ways, incalculable. At its core, a liberal arts education seeks to build a foundation for lifelong learning via the development of key skills, including communication, critical thinking, and problem solving.

And global education, along with many of AAC&U’s high-impact practices, becomes a critical space to put those specific liberal arts skills into practice as we build programs around real experiences in active communication and critical thinking in the midst of new cultures and spaces.

Study abroad’s foundational principles align wholly with the development of these skills.

In other words, study abroad provides a living laboratory in which the praxis of applied global learning occurs.

So as we think through what global education and study abroad are becoming in the emerging world of applied liberal arts, we see two critical–and foundational–insights to consider as we move toward a deeper and more meaningful impact on student experience.

Insight 1

Achieving the shared goals of both study abroad and the liberal arts is an active process.

In other words, study abroad doesn’t work like the chicken pox – just because you’re exposed to it doesn’t mean you’re going to get it.

The personal growth achieved via study abroad comes through intentional reflection on the challenges that arise from experiential education. Navigating a vastly different academic environment and learning a new language certainly present expected challenges, but just as impactful are the unexpected, day-to-day cultural differences students confront as they live and learn abroad as part of the community.

And these challenging moments require students to bridge spaces with reflection on positionality and audience while also working through the unexpected much as they would in a STEM lab.  They observe spaces and behaviours, reflect, hypothesise a communication solution, and navigate the experience through trial and error.

Such experiences are captured and made more meaningful in programs that formalise the reflective process, such as Arcadia Abroad’s Co-curricular Learning Certificate (CLC) program, where students identify a theme, focus on a series of activities and/or events, and document those moments of communication and critical thinking that mattered most to them, later reflecting on the shifts that they see in their thinking and understanding.

Such active engagement with their own growth helps students to perceive the connections between the classroom, their own experience, and the communities in which they live.

Insight 2

The return on investment of a liberal arts education is compounded when students find ways to transform what they’ve learned in the classroom into action in their communities.

Study abroad, as are all high-impact practices, is deeply effective in bridging the classroom and community. Students interrogate cultural, academic, and professional differences as part of their global experience, reflecting on and applying their liberal arts skills to discover themselves in their new communities.

Students emerge from the trial, error, and personal reflection of Insight 1, bringing with them connected learning that makes the student’s global experiences relevant to their own communities.  They necessarily hypothesise and experiment with communication and problem solving in their global lab, finding ways to apply those liberal arts skills in more arenas than a classroom could provide.

The return on investment echoes in new and global communities, such as in Arcadia Abroad and Augsburg University’s Namibia and South Africa-based program, Decolonizing the Mind, challenging students to deconstruct environmental and racial injustices felt today through critical examination of apartheid and through their own community contexts and encouraging students to expand the global lab to their own communities–and take action.

Today’s students have entered academia in a time of isolation and separation where study abroad by and large ground to a halt. As the field of international education reawakens from this period of involuntary dormancy, students and institutions are re-examining the role applied global learning experiences play in student development and intellectual growth.

Students emerge from applied global learning having experienced the value of the liberal-arts based skills that employers demand. Study abroad serves as a bridge between the skills a liberal arts education enables and the application of those skills in daily life.  Institutions have a responsibility to build and maintain that bridge, thereby providing opportunities for enhanced student success.

About the authors: Robert Hallworth is the associate dean of academic access and curricular solutions and Sandra Crenshaw is the director of academic enterprise at the College of Global Studies, Arcadia University.