Challenges Faced by Academic Programs Abroad:

Breaking Stereotypes & Promoting Intercultural Awareness

International Congress on Challenges to Education – Mexico City - Aug. 30-Sept. 1, 2000

Ann Lutterman-Aguilar, Center for Global Education at Augsburg College, /


As we begin the 21st century, one of the most prominent features of our time is globalization, which has led to a greater sense of interconnectedness than ever known before. While this has led to tremendous advances on many fronts, society continues to face great challenges with regard to poverty, human rights, education, health care, and violence across the globe. The words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. continue to ring true: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny." Many educators today, who believe in the global mutuality mentioned by King, are striving to increase the global awareness of their students and to build intercultural and international bridges of understanding so that people worldwide might work together for the creation of a more just society in which there is unity in the respect for cultural, religious, political, and other differences.

Over the past thirty years, one of the most popular ways of trying to foment international awareness and respect for diversity on a global scale has been through the creation and promotion of study abroad programs. Kauffmann, Martin, Weaver and Weaver report:

In addition to the more traditional academic outcomes of improved foreign language proficiency, increased knowledge in one’s discipline, and a broadened intellectual perspective, an educational experience abroad is purported to endow students with an international perspective – knowledge, attitudes and skills which presumably lead to a better educated citizenry and ultimately to improved international relations and global understanding.

According to Kauffmann, "study abroad is one of the most powerful tools available for internationalizing the curriculum in American colleges and universities." Nonetheless, while study abroad programs are expanding worldwide, many students choose not to study abroad for a variety of reasons, including family, financial, and work commitments. However, this paper argues that students’ lack of global awareness and prevailing stereotypes about other nations persist as one of the primary obstacles in preventing them from participating in the very study abroad programs that are designed to build international understanding and respect for diversity. This idea is confirmed by a recent study conducted at Augsburg College, a small liberal arts college in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which seeks to nurture future leaders in service to the world.

Case Study at Augsburg College

In 1999, students in Lori Lohman’s Marketing Research course collaborated with faculty and staff to conduct a survey of undergraduate students in order to develop a better understanding of the reasons why only a tiny percentage of Augsburg students participate in the College’s semester-long study abroad programs in Mexico. Through its Center for Global Education (CGE), Augsburg has sent more than 1,000 undergraduate students from more than 200 different universities and colleges on study abroad programs in Mexico, Central America, and southern Africa. Moreover, a large percentage of the faculty have international experience and encourage their students to study abroad. Nonetheless, CGE programs have not recently drawn a large number of students from Augsburg itself, despite the fact that they have been very successful with students from other schools. The College recently completed a strategic planning process in which it developed the "Vision 2004" and a new Academic Master Plan which deepen its already strong commitment to experiential and international education. Consequently, Augsburg has sought to integrate CGE more fully into the College and thereby increase the number of its own students who study abroad.

Given the proximity of Mexico to the United States and the relevance of study in Mexico to some of the most popular student majors (Business, Education, and Social Work), CGE decided to focus its attention on increasing Augsburg enrollment in the Mexico programs. Strategies have involved increasing its advertising on campus, getting courses approved to meet general education requirements, removing financial obstacles to study abroad, and even offering free airfare. Nonetheless, very few students have taken advantage of these incentives thus far. Which leads us to the question: If it costs the same for them to study in Mexico as on campus, and if they can meet graduation requirements and simultaneously gain invaluable international experience which is valued in today’s workforce, then why are students not jumping at the opportunity? This is one of the key questions that motivated the campus survey.

The survey itself consisted of a four-page questionnaire with twenty-one questions given to a random sampling of classes from the course schedule, designed to reach a cross-section of students representative of the campus population. The professors of the selected classes distributed the survey to students during class time, and the valid response rate was 96.3%. Of the respondents, only 8.3% had studied abroad.

The survey results indicated that 63% of respondents did not recall seeing CGE promotional materials, and hence were unaware of the study abroad opportunities available to them through the College. Most of them expressed concerns about the cost of studying abroad and the possibility of graduating on time, reflecting a lack of awareness about actual costs and opportunities to meet graduate requirements. The data also confirmed the hypothesis that many students find it difficult to spend an entire semester abroad due to work and family commitments and participation in athletics. Only 20% expressed interest in studying abroad for an entire semester, whereas 44.4% said they would like to study abroad for one month. Most of the survey data confirmed what was already known or suspected with regard to the perceived obstacles to study abroad and the need for improved marketing efforts on campus. However, what was most surprising was the widespread lack of interest expressed by many students, who perceived no need for or benefit from study abroad.

Even more striking was the lack of global awareness reflected in some students’ responses to open-ended questions and the persistence of negative stereotypes that surfaced in their responses to a question regarding their interest in studying in Mexico. While 82.2% of the students find Mexico "very" or "somewhat" appealing as a travel destination, very few actually want to study there. 67.1% of the respondents said they had traveled to Mexico previously, and 58.4% stated that they would like to study in another country other than Mexico, although most did not specify where.

Lack of knowledge about Mexico, as well as negative images of the country, permeated responses to a question which asked if students would rather study in another country than Mexico, and if so, why. Only 31.5% of the responses to this question were of a positive nature, meaning that the students expressed a positive interest in studying in another destination. The other 68.5% of the responses were of a negative nature, expressing no specific interest in another location but instead offering negative reasons for not wanting to study in Mexico. These negative responses can be broken down into five general categories, as indicated below.

Question #15: Would you rather study in another country than Mexico? If so, why?

Positive Reasons: 31.5 %

Sample Quotes

Other Interests: 31.5%

A. Major: 11.5%


B. Specific Location: 11.5%

C. Prefer Europe: 16%

Ø My degree program is more greatly influenced by European nations.

Ø I want to live in London.

Ø I’d like to go somewhere in Europe.

Negative Reasons: 68.5%

Sample Quotes

1. Don’t Know the Language: 10%

Ø I don’t know Spanish.

2. Negative Images: 20.5%

A. Unsafe: 6%

B. Negative Images: 6%

C. Just Don’t Like It: 8.5%

Ø I would feel safer in a European country.

Ø I would rather go to a cleaner, less depressing country.

Ø Lots of other places I’d rather go.

3. Uninteresting: 11.5%

A. Not enough history or culture: 6%


B. Not interesting: 5.5%

Ø There is more historical value to France or Europe.

Ø A country with a more distinct culture would interest me more.

Ø Other countries would seem more interesting.

4. Not Much to Learn: 26.5%

A. Too close to the U.S.: 11.5%



B. "Been there, done that": 15%

Ø Mexican culture is all around us. I would prefer something different.

Ø Estoy de Tejas.

Ø I’ve already been to Mexico for vacation.


Intercultural Assessment

While the students’ responses may be discouraging to those who would like to see more U.S. students take advantage of opportunities to study in Mexico, they present a challenge to educators who, like those at Augsburg, strive to create an intentionally diverse campus community with a growing number of international students and an increasing number of opportunities for study abroad. Moreover, while the data in this study is limited to students from just one college, it is unlikely that attitudes expressed there are unique. Rather, it would be surprising if the students’ attitudes did not reflect some of the ethnocentrism, lack of interest, and prejudices often found in the media and mainstream U.S. culture. Although the 1,500 mile border between U.S. and Mexico is the most frequently crossed international border in the world, most U.S. citizens remain largely ignorant of Mexican history, culture, and contemporary life. NAFTA has increased trade between the U.S. and Mexico, but studies have shown that "the average Mexico City daily newspaper contains a higher percentage of news about the United States than the average issue of the New York Times contains about all the rest of the world combined."

Although we need to continue to implement effective marketing strategies that promote study in Mexico, the attitudes expressed by students in the survey suggest that the problem is not just an issue of marketing but rather a lack of interest in Mexico related to misinformation and stereotypes, which can be addressed by comprehensive educational strategies regarding issues of diversity. Until educators collaborate to raise students’ level of global awareness, defined as "an awareness of, interest in, and concern for international events and issues," some students will continue to see Mexico as a great place to go for Spring Break and nothing more

Building upon the work of Piaget, Bennett offers a developmental model for understanding intercultural sensitivity that "posits a continuum of increasing sophistication in dealing with cultural difference, moving from ethnocentrism through stages of greater recognition and acceptance of difference," which he terms "ethnorelativism."

Milton Bennett’s Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS)

Experience of Difference


Ethnocentric * Ethnorelative

Stages Stages


*Denial *Defense *Minimization *Acceptance *Adaptation *Integration


According to Bennett’s model, the most ethnocentric stage of intercultural development involves the denial of fundamental differences in cultures. Applying this model to an analysis of the Augsburg student survey, one could conclude that many of the survey responses reflect the initial stages of development, ranging from denial to minimization. For example, one student wrote, "A country with a more distinct culture would interest me more." This statement reflects attitudes commonly expressed in the denial stage, in which "the mere existence of cultural differences may have eluded one’s attention."

Several comments about Mexico being unsafe, dirty, and depressing reflect the "defense against difference" stage, in which cultures that are different are denigrated. Bennett states, "People at the defense stage have more ability to construe cultural difference, but they attach negative evaluations to it. They combat the threat of change to their stable worldview by denigrating others with negative stereotypes and by attaching positive stereotypes of themselves. Consequently, they view their own culture as the acme of 'development' and tend to evaluate different cultures as 'underdeveloped'."

Finally, a number of students implied that they do not have much to learn about Mexico because they have gone on vacation there, and eight students stated that it was too close to the United States. One student simply wrote, "Estoy de Tejas," ("I be from Texas," complete with the incorrect verb form), as if that explained why s/he did not want to study in Mexico. Such minimization of differences typified several of the survey responses.


Given the survey results, faculty and staff may find them asking the same question posed by the staff of the Experiment in International Living: "What leads human beings from a state of fear, ignorance, and distrust (if not hatred) of those who are culturally different to a state in which they want to understand, communicate, and connect?" One common approach is to immediately begin educating students about the history and culture of the country in question. However, interculturalists suggest that successful educators must first diagnose the students’ stages of development in order to develop curriculum relevant to those stages and facilitate students’ development toward higher levels of ethnorelativism. Hence, efforts to generate interest in Mexico and raise students’ level of knowledge about the country should be integrated into broader educational strategies aimed at increasing students’ intercultural sensitivity. The indications of widespread denial, defense, and minimization, which surfaced in this case study would lead interculturalists to suggest that the best starting point for concerned educators at Augsburg and other schools where similar attitudes have been identified, is at the most basic level - simply helping students to recognize and appreciate the existence of cultural differences.

Moving students beyond the ethnocentric stages of denial, defense, and minimization requires an integrated, college-wide approach by to internationalize the curriculum, including examples and data from Mexico and other countries in their courses. The internationalization of college campuses also requires support from Residence Life and Student Affairs, who play an important role in promoting international awareness in the dorms and through student activities. Moreover, faculty advisers can collaborate to help students see the relevance and importance of study abroad to all majors and future careers in today’s multicultural and global society.

Nonetheless, if colleges such as Augsburg succeed in increasing the number of students who participate in study abroad programs in Mexico, then the Mexico staff of such programs must be prepared to receive students who may be at very early stages of intercultural development. Moreover, it is important to note that in the most recent Open Doors study, Mexico was the number five study abroad destination for U.S. college students. Hence, there are clearly many students who do see Mexico as an attractive location for study and not just vacation. However, one must be cautious in assuming that these students have moved beyond early levels of ethnocentrism, since these students are products of the same U.S. culture which promotes negative stereotypes of Mexico in the media and anti-immigrant political campaigns. Futher research is needed in order to assess the levels of ethnocentrism and ethnorelatively expressed by students who choose to study in Mexico, both upon arrival and upon completion of such programs.

Anectodal evidence suggests that some of the students who choose Mexico as their study abroad destination may continue to make the same type of negative evaluations of Mexican culture as those who choose not to study in Mexico. For example, a friend recently shared a story about her work with U.S. students from a college in the South who spent two weeks in Mexico. During the final discussion session, when students were asked to reflect upon the ways in which their stereotypes of Mexico had changed over the course of the trip, one student said, "Well, before I came to Mexico I thought all Mexicans were dirty. And now, well, ... I still think that they are dirty." This statement highlights the challenges that educators face in moving students from ethnocentrism to ethnorelativism. It is not an easy task. Rather, it is one that confirms Dewey’s belief that "experience can be miseducative" as well as educative. Clearly, getting students to study abroad is not enough. Rather, one must carefully design a curriculum both on campus and abroad that will help to transform students’ understanding of themselves, of others, and the world.

Therefore, CGE study abroad programs employ and advocate experiential and critical pedagogies. Orientation sessions, courses, and host family discussion sessions not only teach students about the historical, political, economic, and cultural context in which they are living, but they also put students into direct contact with people representing a broad diversity of perspectives. Particular emphasis is placed on engaging in dialogue with people who are often under-represented in academia and mainstream media, such as women, indigenous people, gays and lesbians, and economically poor people. Through their courses, students engage in critical analysis of issues related to race, ethnicity, class, and gender. They are also encouraged to reflect upon their own culture of origin, their values, cultural stereotypes, and the power and privilege they exercise as U.S. citizens in Mexico.

Educational efforts designed to address and break down negative stereotypes of Mexico both on U.S. campuses and within study abroad programs in Mexico are essential not only for the sake of students’ maximum learning but also for the sake of the Mexican community which interacts with the students. Most U.S. citizens are unaware of what the famous Mexican writer and statesman Carlos Fuentes describes as fact: "We turn on the television sets of the Mexican mind, and every night we hear the same evening news. Top of the news: THE SPANISH HAVE CONQUERED MEXICO. Second item: THE GRINGOS STOLE HALF OUR TERRITORY." Given Mexico’s painful history of conquest and invasion, it is particularly important that foreign students be sensitive to issues of cultural imperialism, privilege, and power.

Special concerns about cultural imperialism are raised by the popular demand for international service-learning opportunities at colleges and universities throughout the United States. 32% of the Augsburg survey respondents expressed interest in participating in such experiences. However, students who are not fluent in Spanish and do not have a full appreciation of Mexican culture may do more damage than good. Ivan Illych’s words against U.S. volunteers in Mexico serve as a challenge to U.S. study abroad programs:

By definition, you cannot help being ultimately vacationing salesmen for the middle-class 'American way of life,' since that is really the only life you know... The damage which volunteers do willy-nilly is too high a price for the belated insight that they shouldn’t have been volunteers in the first place... I am here to entreat you to use your money, your status, and your education to travel in Latin America... Come to study. But do not come to help.

Hence, it is highly advisable for study abroad programs to evaluate students’ preparedness, as well as the potential effectiveness of service-learning programs in cross-cultural settings. For example, CGE emphasizes the need for students to learn about Mexican culture, history, economics, and politics from Mexicans before jumping into any kind of service work. CGE has also implemented a thorough application process for internships and service-learning experiences, which are only offered to a limited number of students who meet strict requirements with regard to language and cross-cultural experience.

The use of assessment tools of intercultural awareness and sensitivity, such as the Cross-Cultural Adaptability Inventory, the Cultural Adaptation Inventory, or the Intercultural Development Inventory, prior to students’ departure for Mexico is strongly recommended as a means for identifying students’ stages of ethnocentricity and ethnorelativism. Study abroad program directors can then tailor their orientation program and educational work to the students’ demonstrated levels of intercultural awareness and sensitivity. Similar tools may then also be used to assess students’ levels of development upon completion of such programs, as part of the research on the effectiveness of these programs in helping students to develop intercultural sensitivity.

In conclusion, the results of the Augsburg College case study indicate not only a need for better marketing of Mexico programs at that particular college but for further research regarding the existence of similar attitudes at other colleges and universities and among participants in study abroad programs, as well as for continued efforts toward the internationalization of curriculum and campus culture within the U.S. Furthermore, it may be helpful to integrate education about intercultural awareness into all aspects of study abroad programs. By doing so, academic programs abroad will be better equipped to fulfill their potential of preparing students to exercise leadership in an increasingly intercultural, global society and building bridges of understanding that will lead to the creation of a more just and sustainable world for all peoples.