Study abroad heads south

The weak dollar value makes Europe a less attractive study abroad destination.

Riham Feshir

More University students are heading south. To South America, that is.

The desire to improve Spanish-speaking skills and engage in community service in an affordable environment attracts more students to Central and South American study abroad programs, according to the Learning Abroad Center.

The number of students studying abroad in Latin America during the 2006-2007 academic year rose 82 percent from the previous year, according to the center’s figures.

Scott Daby, Mexico program director, said this year’s numbers are about the same as last year.

The fluctuating dollar may have something to do with the growing number, but it’s not the only reason, Jodi Malmgren, Learning Abroad Center associate director, said in an e-mail.

Malmgren said it’s reasonable to suggest the stronger value of the dollar in South America may play a role in encouraging students to seek out study abroad programs there.

Additionally, the dollar’s weakening value in more traditional destinations – such as France, Spain and England – may be steering students away from those locations, she said. Malmgren added that the strength of the dollar was not the only factor in students’ decisions.

“It would be too simplistic to suggest that increased enrollments in South America are directly a result of cost or the fluctuating dollar,” she said.

Tuition – including international health insurance -and cost of living are other decision factors in choosing South America, Daby said.

This year, a semester-long program in Mexico costs $5,770, including tuition, room and board and international health insurance, he said.

Many programs in Europe cost significantly more, according to data from the Learning Abroad Center.

For example, the Queen Mary University program in London costs approximately $10,000 per semester, not including room and board.

Political science senior Anna Ruud, who studied in Argentina last fall, said compared to her visit to France, she enjoyed the “75 percent off” concept when converting the dollar to the Argentinean peso – meaning an American dollar is worth three pesos.

“It’s definitely cheaper,” she said.

Language and culture

Many students who choose South America don’t just consider the finances, some program directors said.

Compared to Europe, Ruud thought Argentina was, “less touristy and has more of a cultural aspect to it. You’re required to speak more of the language because less people are fluent in English.”

Ecuador program director Sheila Collins said speaking Spanish is important in the United States.

“In most professions, you will personally benefit for being able to communicate in Spanish,” she said.

Community involvement

The Mexico program offers a five-credit service-learning course in which students spend time volunteering in fields like education and health care.

“Volunteerism is becoming a bigger thing for students on campus,” Daby said.

Students in the service-learning course meet once a week to discuss cultural and social issues they see at community service sites and tie them to the bigger picture in society, Daby said.

In addition to the service-learning program in Mexico,ww the Learning Abroad Center created the Minnesota Studies in International Development program in Ecuador, which provides students with internship opportunities with organizations such as schools, orphanages and hospitals.

“Many students have a genuine interest in engaging with the world beyond campus, these programs offer them a way to improve language skills, work with local communities, study and travel,” said Martha Johnson, an associate director in the center.