Ideologies of Study Abroad: Tourism

I’ve written a lot on this blog about language ideologies, including different types of language ideologies, and why I think they’re important for the classroom. However, I haven’t written much about study abroad ideologies, another set that I think all too often is unquestioned. If language ideologies are beliefs about language, study abroad ideologies are beliefs about study abroad. In both cases, you can’t have a neutral perspective, or no ideology. So, the goal is not to get rid of ideologies, but to increase our awareness of our ideologies and their implications for our practice. This is the first in a series of posts on ideologies of study abroad, starting with one of the longest-standing and most prominent: Study Abroad as Tourism.

Study Abroad as tourism is essentially the belief that study abroad is a king of prolonged tourist experience, with the opportunity to travel and experience historical and cultural sites while having fun. We see this ideology represented in most pictures of study abroad, which features individual students or groups of students posing in front of monuments or other destination locations, exactly like they would be captured in a tour group. This ideology is also represented in the desire to have new experiences, and language that represents study abroad as “travels” or “adventures”. This ideology has historical roots in the Grand Tour of Europe, where wealthy Britons and Americans would send their children traveling around Europe as an educational finishing experience. The expectation created by this ideology, is of study abroad being a fun, leisure-time experience, traveling and seeing historic/cultural sites.

What are the implications of this expectation that we should be aware of? One is the ways in which fulfilling this expectation of extensive travel and touristic experiences can conflict with other expectations, like entering local social networks. If the majority of a student’s leisure time is spend traveling and engaging in touristic experiences (likely with other study abroad students) the time to engage locally is more limited.

There is also the issue of the “fun” experience being used to discount the “educational”, meaning that because tourism is perceived as a leisure activity, this is extended to the entire experience abroad, discounting it as an educational experience compared to the time spent at home. Efforts to counter this usually focus on distinguishing between study abroad (serious) and tourism (fun), but these can be undermined when it is clear that tourism is part of the experience. Rather than trying to make this distinction, it might be more useful to think about intentionally linking the tourism and educational aspects of study abroad.

There is also the question of who has access to touristic experiences, especially international ones? Generally, this is going to be upper middle class/wealthy white families, due to financial resources and class cultural expectations. For students from families used to paying for international tourism, the cost of study abroad is acceptable. For other students, we know the costs are prohibitive. What is less discussed is the cultural aspect—if participating in international tourism is tied to other cultural markers of white upper middle class culture, are these underlying expectations of participating in study abroad as well? Does this make it less appealing or more difficult for students from other cultural backgrounds on top of the financial challenges?

A key point here is making sure to not conflate international tourism (or study abroad) with international experiences. While the former may be limited to higher classes, there are many types of international experiences, some of which may even be associated with less privileged classes, such as living in a border town or immigrant community, or immigrating oneself. When study abroad is too closely linked with a particular type of international experience, international tourism, this can minimize the value of other types of international experiences, a point I’ll return to in future posts on the ideologies of study abroad.

Finally, while study abroad is often associated with the leisure and consumer aspects of tourism, tourism is also a professional industry in which multilingualism is a valuable skill (yes, even though English is the global language of tourism). What does it mean that consumer experiences of tourism are so often incorporated into study abroad, but professional ones rarely are? What does this show about our expectations of who should be consuming tourism/study abroad, and who should be working in it?

Hopefully, this post has given you some ideas about why it’s so important to be aware not only of the ideology of study abroad as tourism, but of the ramifications of this expectation in terms of access to study abroad and professional preparation (another ideology I’ll return to at some point). I don’t actually think that tourism should be removed from study abroad (it’s clearly an activity many people enjoy or aspire to experience), but I do think we need to be more careful about how these experiences are incorporated into study abroad, beyond just adding excursions. How do we make sure these excursions support our other goals? How do we address underlying cultural expectations to make them inclusive? How do we make sure we are recognizing other types of international experiences? What about including tourism as a profession and not just a consumer experience? Why do our photo representations of study abroad focus so heavily on the tourism aspects?

If you have more thoughts (or questions!) on the ideology of study abroad as tourism, let me know!





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