Study abroad bill hopes to send one million students overseas

Backed by Sen. Norm Coleman, the goal is for half of all students to study abroad.

Liz Riggs

Under a new bill introduced at the federal level earlier this year, a number of study abroad programs around the country could begin to look more like the University model.

The Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Foundation Act of 2007 aims to send one million U.S. students to study abroad annually beginning in the next decade.

A version of the bill passed unanimously in the House of Representatives earlier this year.

Gayle Woodruff, the director of curriculum integration at the Learning Abroad Center on campus, said the focus of the Simon Act fits well with an objective that originated with former University President Mark Yudof and was subsequently endorsed by current University President Bob Bruininks.

“The University of Minnesota already has a goal of sending 50 percent of the undergraduates to study abroad,” Woodruff said.

She said the one million figure roughly reflects half the students graduating from U.S. universities each year, creating a national target similar to the University’s goal.

The Simon Act is based on recommendations stemming from the Abraham Lincoln Study Abroad Fellowship Program, a commission established by Congress in 2004.

Woodruff said the University was used as “a role-model institution” during the Lincoln Commission’s study period.

U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., who co-authored the Simon Act in the Senate, indicated the purpose of the bill is not just to expand, but to diversify study abroad programs.

“The current study abroad is really dominated by white middle- and upper-class students. There isn’t a lot of diversity in terms of the folks we send over to other countries,” Coleman said.

The legislation, if passed, would encourage universities to increase diversity by offering competitive grants to programs that make study abroad more accessible.

According to the Simon Act, “diversity” also applies to the disciplines in which

study abroad programs are offered, which have been more limited in the past.

“We want to make studying abroad feasible, accessible, attractive for all students. And this would, I think, democratize and diversify the study abroad program,” Coleman said.

Coleman press secretary LeRoy Coleman (no relation) said encouraging study abroad is important for the country as a whole.

“Our national and economic security dictates that we need to develop expertise in all regions of the world. So the Simon Act encourages that,” LeRoy Coleman said.

The legislation hit a road block earlier in the year when the U.S. Department of State didn’t initially sign on to the bill.

“The State Department had some concerns, which is not uncommon with new approaches like this,” LeRoy Coleman said.

“But just last week we reached a breakthrough compromise with them, which we think will really help us get it through the Senate – hopefully before we adjourn for Christmas,” he said.

From a local standpoint, Woodruff said, the Simon Act affirms that the University is “right on track.”