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A History of Study Abroad

William W. Hoffa's Fascinating Story About its Beginnings in the U.S. to 1965

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What follows is a profile of William W. Hoffa, a leading expert in the field of study abroad and author of A History of U.S. Study Abroad: Beginnings to 1965. This 318-page manuscript includes a 15-page timeline and nine pages of works cited. It was printed in March 2007 as a special publication of Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad and The Forum on Education Abroad, of which Dr. Hoffa is a founding Board member. The research was made possible by initial support from the Institute of Study Abroad, Butler University and the publication was made possible by a grant from the IFSA Foundation to Frontiers. You can order volume I and volume 2 of the History of U.S. Study Abroad from The Forum on Education Abroad website. — Sherry Schwarz

It is said that to know the future one must know the past. In writing A History of U.S. Study Abroad: Beginnings to 1965, Hoffa, the former International Education editor of Transitions Abroad, has done the field of education abroad a great service. His comprehensive and rich look at the origins of traveling-to-learn, and the eventual outgrowth of study abroad — shaped by America’s unique history, political tensions, and pedagogical differences — is instructive today as we map the future of education abroad and consider how best to foster global knowledge, understanding, and goodwill among our students.

Having experienced a long and varied career as a respected teacher, scholar, writer, editor, colleague, consultant, and mentor, Hoffa is in a uniquely qualified position to write this first-ever history of study abroad. He has worked within the classroom as a professor of English at Vanderbilt University, the University of New Mexico, and Hamilton College and outside the classroom as executive director of the not-for-profit study abroad organization Scandinavian Seminar and field director of university programs for the Council for International Educational Exchange. At The School for International Training, Hoffa taught and advised graduate students for more than a decade in the masters program in intercultural management.

Before assuming his current position as study abroad adviser at Amherst College, Hoffa provided campus internationalization consultations to more than 25 U.S. colleges and universities. During his nearly 30 years of active professional involvement in international education, he has played a leading role in NAFSA: Association of International Educators. He is author and editor of many professional publications, articles, reviews, and reports. Most notably, he realized the need for a basic text on education abroad and was involved in planning and co-editing all three editions of NAFSA’S Guide to Education Abroad for Advisers and Administrators (1993, 1997, and 2005). In addition, he wrote Study Abroad: A Parents Guide (1998) and co-edited Crisis Management in a Cross Cultural Setting (2001). He received NAFSA’s Homer Higbee Award for distinguished service in 2005.

Hoffa came to the field of international education after spending his early years as a professor of literature.“Teaching Huckleberry Finn, no matter how wonderful a book,” says Hoffa, “wasn’t going to sustain me year after year. I realized I wanted to pursue a good cause…study abroad was a good cause. I wanted to address the woeful ignorance of American undergraduate students about the rest of the world, and participate in activities that would help students wake up.”

Born and raised in Detroit, MI without the funds to study abroad himself, Hoffa had little real-world experience of the borders beyond his homeland and neighboring Canada. After he passed his Ph.D. preliminary examinations, in the late ’60s, he traveled to Western Europe with a friend and treated himself to what he now realizes was an experience similar to the British and European “grand tours.”

In A History of Study Abroad, he writes about the grand tour as a way for youthful travelers, invariably gentlemen, “to hear unfamiliar languages and see ancient and modern architecture; to get firsthand knowledge of geography; and to learn about the politics, culture, art, and antiquities of the continent.”

At the same time, by having traveled in the ’60s Hoffa witnessed the explosion of young travelers, which he describes in a section of his book on the rise of services catering to young travelers — from European hostels and train passes to paperbound guides offering bargain travel, such as Arthur Frommer’s Europe on $5 A Day published in 1956 and Harvard’s Let’s Go: A Student Guide to Europe first published in 1961.

Although admittedly touring Europe, Hoffa was “open enough to realize there was a lot to learn.” And this in itself is valuable, as he says in A History of Study Abroad: “Any and all travel has educational potential, whatever its inspiration and purpose. What and how much is learned, however, depends greatly on how open the traveler is to what the road offers.”

Hoffa’s book is peppered with this type of wisdom and sensibility, which he has gleaned over the years, from his first tourist experience to more significant international experiences that followed. From 1974 to 1975 he lived in Finland, where he was a senior Fulbright lecturer in American Studies at University of Jyvaskyla. This opportunity impressed upon Hoffa “the importance, value, and gratification of cross-cultural exchange and learning, especially if done in both directions.”

Several years later, when Hoffa became director of the Scandinavian Seminar, from 1981-1989, he observed how immersion programs enabled students to get “under the skin of a culture.” The Scandinavian Seminar, for example, provided students with a 1-month intensive language course and a short stay with a non-English-speaking Scandinavian family, before each student was sent to a different folk school for the academic year, living as the only American among 200 to 400 native students.

That a cultural immersion experience abroad is of paramount educational importance becomes irrefutable for Hoffa as his career progresses. Even today, he sees how study abroad fits into the education of the brightest, most eager students at Amherst College. “It is vital part of Amherst in a way it might not have been 25 years ago,” he says. “I read evaluations, week after week, in which students say, ‘the classes were okay, but ‘boy the impact on my life’…The Students get it.”

And, informally Hoffa did a survey a few years ago at Amherst to measure the impact of study abroad. He found that 65 percent of departmental prizes and honors went to the 35 to 40 percent of students who had studied abroad. “Maximally, it says to me there’s something about the experience of study abroad that stimulates learning, gives them knowledge and experience that they plow back into their senior years.”

However, as Hoffa describes in his book, the relationship of study abroad to academic crediting has been problematic always. What he finds in America’s experience with this “phenomenon” is that in every decade there has been a debate about its academic merit — despite the critical role American leaders have given it in fostering cross-cultural understanding and peace-building time and again, especially after WWI, WWII, and the Cold War.

Hoffa makes clear that it is students themselves and visionary leaders who have carried the torch for study abroad through the decades — from its earliest origins in America in the form of Indiana University’s “summer tramps” in the 1880s and Princeton-in- Asia’s program for graduates to teach in China in 1898 to the more conventionally known “start” of study abroad, the American Junior Year Abroad (JYA) programs, which were founded in the 1920s.

Hoffa defines JYA as “an institutional and academic endeavor, taking place in another country and leading to credit toward a student’s home institution degree.” He explains that JYA grew out of American unique higher education system, which abandoned its qualitative European roots in favor of a modular credit system, whereby an undergraduate degree is measured in terms of a certain number of courses taken and passed instead of students having to “stand” and “sit” examinations. With this new system came a new method of record-keeping that allowed students more flexibility to interrupt their studies and move from institution to institution. Added to this was America’s decision to fund education privately and by the state, which meant there was no national standard and study abroad courses could be substituted from home campus courses if the home campus was willing to do so.

The early college presidents, provosts, and deans of a few institutions recognized the value that could be gained from combining academic and experiential learning modes in a foreign setting. Their aim was “to enrich and diversify undergraduate degree studies through participation in a program of study in a foreign environment,” says Hoffa. This campus-based undertaking was neither matriculated study for a foreign university degree nor extracurricular enrichment; rather, as Hoffa describes, it was “an innovative and programmatic attempt to combine academic and experiential learning modes in a foreign setting,” because these few early American educators believed that overseas programming could accomplish certain educational goals better than domestic study alone.

Three different programs emerged as forerunners to modern study abroad: “junior year abroad” (JYA), faculty-led study tours, and summer study, most of which took place in European countries and included homestays.

From these early years there is documentation of the “self-reflexive value of overseas study; that the students learned a lot about themselves as Americans and that this brought them a ‘broader conception,’ ‘a new outlook,’ and ‘an objective viewpoint,’ as well as the substantive knowledge of the language and culture in which they lived,” reports Hoffa.

In 1934, after nine years of sending students abroad, Smith College president Allen Neilson wrote a letter to his students’ parents about the importance of overseas study. He said, “In my opinion it is in practically every case much the most valuable year spent in College.”

Hoffa notes, however, that an overview of the JYA approach to study abroad evidences that the concept and program design of full immersion — American students sitting in classrooms next to native students — was more an ideal than a practically achievable practice. “Few American students had the language proficiency, the academic background, or the cultural and historical points of reference of academically elite native students,” he says.

In contrast, Hoffa finds “the floating university,” which arose chronologically at the same time as JYA, more “global” in its theory and practice. He says, “It may seem rather remarkable that anything as large and sophisticated as the floating university voyages stand at the beginning of U.S. study abroad programming…Indeed, its design and educational premises differ in just about every way possible from that of the JYA program, but it represented the new educational pedagogy of the likes of John Dewey, challenging some of the basic tenets of classroom learning. Rather than merely learning from textbooks and faculty lectures, the floating ship brought together a diverse body of students, including females, who would circle the globe and discuss global issues on board the ship, while experiencing the real world off the ship.

Hoffa cites a quote from the voyage’s founder after the first journey. He says, “‘contacts with and observations of the people and students of other nations increases [a student’s] capacity for critical thinking and develops adequate expression’; it gives ‘new significance to his text-books and awaken[s] interest [which] will endure long after the Cruise has ended.’”

Since Hoffa himself is interested in how people learn and how they learn best, he prefers more the model of the floating ship to JYA, for he understands the “stimulating” nature of university-grade off-campus learning. He says of the floating ship that it aimed to introduce students to “the multiplicity of cultures around the world as well as to issues that cross national borders…[believing] in the pedagogical value of exposing students to geographical and cultural breadth; and providing them with a classroom introduction that prepared them to think about what they read and saw with their own eyes.”

As Hoffa’s inquiry progresses from the early 20th century to 1965, he finds the varieties of study abroad increase rapidly, and it becomes up to each college and university to decide which path to follow — although Hoffa makes clear that all fall under two distinct approaches characterized on one side by Stephen Freeman, emeritus professor at Middlebury College, and on the other by Irwin Abrams, professor of history at Antioch College. Both had extensive experience with study abroad programming and had helped establish and run overseas programs. Hoffa suggests that their differing philosophies provide an overview of the state of study abroad by the mid-1960s and lay the groundwork for the primary issues that will characterize the national debate of future decades (from the late 1960s to present).

Freeman saw study abroad as a largely “singular activity, centered on language and cultural immersion programming,” explains Hoffa. There was a “right” way to do it, and it should be a component of traditional academic study in Freeman’s view. In contrast, Abrams argued that “study abroad was a pluralistic phenomenon; the key was that students and institutions of higher education became clear about what programs could and couldn’t accomplish.” For Abrams, study abroad could be part of both the intellectual and professional development of the student, but also of his “general education” and “the furthering of international understanding.”

Hoffa’s own leanings are closer to Abrams, for he too sees “…the vitality, breadth, and range of study abroad [as] a means of enlivening undergraduate liberal education beyond its mere academic bearings,” bringing it full circle to the roots from which his book grows. In the earliest of times, says Hoffa, “…‘home’ meant membership in a geographically local tribe, clan, or language group [and] members often felt the urge to seek out new knowledge elsewhere.”

This broad vision of study abroad, as an extension of our human quest for knowledge from places unknown, take us through the ages of the wandering scholar tradition, the grand tour, and the Wanderjahr until we ultimately reach the pluralistic concept we know today as “study abroad” — although Hoffa prefers the term “education abroad,” since it encompasses other invaluable forms of learning overseas, such as student and scholar exchanges and volunteering and service-learning.

In his book, Hoffa explains how student volunteer programs owe their start to early Americans’ “experiential learning and doing, based on youthful American idealism taken to foreign shores.” The “highminded” colonialists’ spirit manifested itself in missionary and volunteer service, as well as emergency relief programs, all of which paved the way for the United States’ post-WWI and WWII international work camps and reconciliation programs, as well as unique internationalist American institutions such as the Peace Corps.

When you read Hoffa’s fascinating first volume of A History of Study Abroad, you will no doubt understand how the timehonored notion of connecting traveling with learning is embedded in the fabric of the American culture, and indeed human culture writ large.

Q&A with William W. Hoffa, author of A History of Study Abroad

Sherry Schwarz: How did A History of Study Abroad come about?

William W. Hoffa: About eight years ago the Institute for Study Abroad, Butler University was preparing to celebrate its 10th anniversary, and its director, Tom Roberts, wanted to make an altruistic gesture to the field to thank it for its support of Butler’s programs. He went to the field and asked what it needed. The answer he kept getting back was “a good history.“ No one in the field really knew where we came from.

SS: What you initially thought might take two years to write your book took eight years. What were some of the challenges you encountered?

WWH: In point of fact, the story I have tried to tell is much more interesting and complicated than I or anyone else knew at the outset, and it demanded sustained time and attention. Also, of course, I had my “day jobs” to do throughout this period. As it is, this study covers only the first half of the 80-year history of study abroad. There is much more to say and the remaining 40 years will be even more challenging to encompass.

SS: Your book draws on a broad array of sources, from political, historical, and literary texts to newsletters, annual reports, and college publications. Please tell us about your research process.

WWH: Some of my resources were drawn from the Amherst College Library, and it is amazing today what can be found online. As an avowed pack-rat, I had over the years put together my own library of materials relating to the history of study abroad. But mainly, I appealed to colleagues to send me whatever they might have on hand from their institutional or private sources. These came in periodically over the duration of my research and writing, sometimes enriching and extending what was in place, sometimes sending me down new paths. The end result was a book that relies on this particular information. I am sure there is much more out there to be uncovered, some of which may alter my observations and conclusions.

SS: After compiling this history, if you were to “theoretically” design a model education abroad program, how would it look?

WWH: All study abroad activity exists between two disparate truisms: One, that long and more language- and culturallyimmersed programs are “better” in terms of the educational impact on students than shorter, more circumscribed and Americanized programs; and two, that something is better than nothing, and thus any exposure to a foreign environment has value and can serve as a wake-up call. My model for an ideal program would be more based on providing as much cultural immersion as possible, but it would also provide ways for students to synthesize outside the classroom learning with inside classroom learning, and then post-learning.

SS: When describing the national debate that emerges in the 1950s about program proliferation and quality, you cite study abroad historian and practitioner Irwin Abrams’ statement: “What has happened is that in the commendable attempt to make foreign study respectable, there has been an understandable but deplorable deference to traditionalism that ill becomes a revolutionary new vehicle for education…Study Abroad will achieve its promise only when we break old patterns and strike out for something new.” Do we run the risk of limiting our students’ learning overseas by institutionalizing it too much?

WWH: Yes. But, as I say above, good programs and home campuses are those that successfully prepare students for the overseas experience, expose them to as much as possible to living and learning on indigenous foreign terms, and then challenge them to incorporate what they have experienced into their ongoing education and life.

SS: As you look at the history of varied international institutes for foreigners, you reference the example of The Cambridge Summer School, which at one time, after WWI, operated as “‘a practical demonstration of a miniature League of Nations at work,’ building international peace and understanding among nations.” Do you think we need more of these non-traditional person-to-person building initiatives as part of our concept of education abroad?

WWH: There are many roads to the Parnassus of cross-cultural understanding. Study abroad for academic degree credit is merely one, and something I try to show in the book which was preceded by many other modes of education achieved in foreign places, as remains the case today. One of my recent students spent two academic terms at Oxford, followed by a 7-week stint in a Tsunami health clinic for women in Sri Lanka. There was no doubt, she said, but that the relief work in Asia had had a deeper impact on her anthropology studies and her awareness of global realities. My sense is that the number of students who are going to other countries under the sponsorship of volunteer service programs, NGOs, short-term work agencies, etc. is again on the rise, and I celebrate this.

SS: As we send students overseas today amid the backdrop of the U.S. War in Iraq, do you see parallels to the early 20th century war periods? What would your post-war hope be for the role of study abroad in rebuilding and initiating peace in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan? WWH: Certainly, the desire for building a sustainable peace after both WWI and WWII was the inspiration for outgrowth, first, of humanitarian reconstruction and reconciliation programming, followed by international educational programs for students. Even the end of the Cold War ushered in a new era based on the need to educate students for the global job market. Let’s hope that hostilities in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, and elsewhere in the world end soon and that all parties rediscover that one of the best ways to build mutual trust and empathy is through international educational exchanges of young people and citizen- to-citizen reciprocity.

SS: In your book you refer to the writing of Henry James and Edith Wharton, both of whom you say, “dramatized the conflict of American innocence, energy, and ambition with European experience, sophistication, and history.” Do you think this is still a relevant dramatization today, and what is its impact on how we think about study abroad?

WWH: In spite of the forces of globalization and our role as a world leader since the end of WWII, American isolationism and the too-prevalent view of our Manifest Destiny, still often blinds us to global realities. Study abroad even at its most superficial can confront students with their Americanness in a way that domestic education seldom does. At its most profound, it can be a transformative experience that takes students down the road toward becoming global citizens. What James and Wharton, and others dramatized in their stories and novels I think is still happening. Many of the students I see coming back from study abroad reflect interestingly on how the overseas experience allowed them to transcend their American “innocence” and see the world in a new light.

SS: You view the concept of study abroad as originating from the history of learning itself…what does this say about the integral role that bringing foreign peoples and cultures together plays in education?

WWH: Ours is certainly not the first era in which becoming a fully educated person necessarily involves seeing beyond the limits of one’s tribe and the borders of one’s country. As I note in the book, from the later Middle Ages to well past the Renaissance, there existed a community of learning that knew no borders — an ideal academic environment that statesmen and international educators have been trying to recover ever since. Put another way, the emergence of nationalism in the intervening centuries indeed constrained education at all levels. At the present moment, when ideas, people, goods, and capital flow back and forth readily across most national borders, “internationalism” can seem a somewhat anachronistic concept, while “globalism” promises a wider and more all-encompassimg worldview.

SS: You reference Mark Twain’s notion from The Innocents Abroad (1869) that “the cultural baggage that Americans carried abroad prevented them from fully understanding what they were seeing.” This is a critique that still surfaces today. Is this a perception more than a reality? Is this notion changing as we formalize study abroad?

WWH: All travelers are limited by the prism of their own cultural perspective. One can never be fully ethno-relativistic, nor should one try to be. But the aim of individual students and their programs should ultimately be to see and try to understand what is “foreign” on its own terms; to try to distinguish what is different and what is similar. But true education comes not just in having the foreign experience but in processing and appropriating it into one’s own realm. This is what an educational program can do.

SS: What did you learn from your book that you did not expect to learn?

WWH: Many things: Reconstructing the past is laborious and precarious work. What one ends up with is always going to be less than the full truth, given the difficulty of having all possible sources at hand and interpreting them accurately. What I ended up with is indeed A history, and not The history of this subject. I hope and assume other histories will follow. I also learned that the original premise, that the field of international education wants and needs to understand its origins, remains the case. Getting the facts straight is difficult enough, but the real challenge lies in seeing their meaning and relevance to contemporary readers. Nobody doing a book like this finishes with absolute confidence that this has been done.

SS: Why did you conclude the book in the year 1965, and what are your plans for the next volume?

WWH: 1965 is about half-way through the 80-year history of American study abroad, which while having ancient roots and origins, began in the mid 1920s. The mid-1960s, however, also represents the end of two decades of American outreach on the part of the federal government and philanthropic organizations, symbolized in the passage of the International Education Act of 1966 and then the failure to fund it. The Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, and a panoply of other national events changed our attitude toward the rest of the world and its attitudes toward this country. While study abroad activity had greatly proliferated during these 20 years, making it a new part of U.S . higher education, a national debate was ensuing about its meaning and place.

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