The World Is Calling
Area College Students Join Those Hitting the Books Overseas in Record Numbers

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 8, 2006

Brendan Geary was going to be an actor. Maybe a lawyer. But in college, he signed up for a semester abroad and got hooked.

Since he went to Israel -- and got past his first panicked "What was I thinking ?" -- he's also studied in the United Kingdom, Qatar and Ireland. He's taught in Japan and traveled to Austria, Cairo, Singapore, Jordan, Hong Kong. At 27, Geary has gone scuba diving in the Red Sea, worked with a member of Britain's Parliament and become one of the few Americans to play paintball in Moscow.

Once, a junior year abroad was something a few adventurous foreign-language majors did. Now, the number of students receiving college credit abroad keeps rising. During the past 20 years, it has nearly tripled, to about 175,000 in the 2003-04 academic year, the last year for which statistics are available. And there are those such as Geary, a doctoral student at Georgetown University who just finished a Fulbright fellowship, who string together academics and travel to maximize time spent overseas.

Some experts say foreign study and exchanges are particularly popular in the Washington area, where so many students come to study international affairs.

Starting this year, Goucher College in Towson, Md., requires all students to study abroad in order to graduate, the first such school in the country to do so. School administrators took a chance, knowing the new rule might keep some students away. But when school starts later this month, Goucher will have its biggest freshman class ever.

At Georgetown, nearly 60 percent of students received credit for classes taken abroad in 2003-04 -- one of the highest participation rates in the country (American University, George Washington University, Goucher and the University of Virginia are all in the top 20 for their categories, too).

As at other schools, that figure doesn't count all the short noncredit courses, people studying Spanish in Costa Rica for the month of July or taking a week-long art history trip through Florence -- or popular spring-break volunteer trips to such places as Haiti and Guatemala.

The Institute of International Education, which collects data on study abroad, doesn't track whether students are going overseas multiple times. But experts said, anecdotally, that they are seeing more multiple excursions than ever, now that study abroad has gotten easier to do and less likely to be thought of as an extra or a luxury.

Business and education have become so global that "now it's like, 'Where is your study abroad experience?' " said Rebecca Brown, director of the International Studies Office at U-Va.

The United Kingdom remains the most popular destination for study abroad. But the institute's listings of programs are approaching 7,000, not including colleges' own programs, up from several hundred a few decades ago. And students are more willing to venture beyond drinking Foster's on the beaches of Australia to study in Africa, China, Latin America.

It still isn't cheap: Goucher is giving students $1,200 vouchers to ensure that no one is shut out. The other main roadblock is often institutional: credits that won't transfer, programs that aren't publicized, snarls of red tape. Many schools limit the credits that can be earned off-campus.

It used to be rare to find a pre-med student studying abroad, because they were locked into so many required courses on campus. But many schools are finding ways to make it easier to fit in, including ensuring that there are shorter options available during breaks.

More students are taking six- or eight-week programs, and some get hooked: U-Va. students come back from January-term travel programs, Brown said, and say, "I'm going abroad again -- where do I sign up?"

Every time he comes back to the United States, said Charles Kiamie III, who just finished a Fulbright in Jordan and teaches at GWU, he's glad to be home. And he's counting the seconds until he goes back overseas. "I just booked another ticket this morning," he said. "For real."

David Turnbull, another GWU student, said, "I've been saying that to myself for the last six months: I need to leave the country."

Geary grew up near Philadelphia, in a big Irish Catholic family and, following its tradition, went to the University of Notre Dame. He studied drama and politics, and when he saw a flier for a semester in Jerusalem, he thought, "Wow." And then, "Why not take a leap?"

He didn't know Hebrew or Arabic, or anything about the region's history or politics.

It turned out to be one of the best experiences of his life.

Every morning he woke up, wondered where he was, remembered, and savored that feeling of being somewhere completely new, completely foreign to him. Geary walked through the Old City past places so resonant for so many cultures, he said, like layers of history.

He took classes from Israelis and Palestinians, weighing the different perspectives. "I learned to listen more," he said, and felt the conflict as much as studied it. "You could feel the pressure," he said. "You could feel it emanating from both sides."

It changed his academic choices: Geary came back and learned Arabic and concentrated on the Middle East. It changed his career options: He specialized in energy issues there, and expects to work as a research analyst in the industry or become a professor.

The next semester, as a junior back at Notre Dame, he got restless to go abroad again. He signed up for the spring semester in London.

Geary missed people at home and hated spending holidays alone, but other than that, he didn't see any downside. So he thought about going to law school -- and ended up in Japan instead.

And so it went: Back in the United States to study at Georgetown, Geary applied for a Fulbright. And when he found he'd been awarded the fellowship and had the summer free before doing research in Qatar, he -- what else? -- took his airline miles, told his friends overseas he'd be coming, and bought a round-the-world ticket.

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