Study abroad may get greener

The importance of sustainability may be taken for granted on the Yale campus by this point — but administrators have now set their sights on exporting the concept to Yalies studying abroad.

The sudden interest at Yale in trying to make study-abroad activities sustainable — both environmentally and culturally — mirrors a similar move within the study-abroad field as a whole. As increasing numbers of American students hop on carbon-spewing planes to exotic destinations, college administrators and study-abroad programs alike have started to focus on what impact these students may be having, both on the environment and on the local cultures themselves.

“The light bulb has just gone on,” said Jane Edwards, associate dean for international affairs, who said she first began to think seriously about environmental sustainability last fall. In the coming months, she said, she hopes the study-abroad office and Yale as a whole will start to think more seriously about how to mitigate the adverse effects of study abroad, while recognizing that halting study abroad is not an option.

Daniel Greenberg, executive director of Living Routes, an organization which offers study-abroad experiences in “ecovillages” on several continents, has a different metaphor for the growing interest in sustainable study-abroad options: popcorn kernels beginning to burst.

“My sense is that the oil is heating up and that over the next two years, this is going to be a big topic in study abroad,” Greenberg said.

This month, a task force Greenberg chaired for NAFSA: Association of International Educators produced a report on sustainability in international education that includes recommendations for study-abroad office management, program design and student opportunities — a first for NAFSA.

The item of greatest concern when it comes to environmental sustainability is the plane flights, study abroad program administrators said. A round-trip flight from Boston to London, for example, emits over three tons of carbon dioxide per person.

As a result, some organizations — like Living Routes — encourage students to offset the impact of their flights by making their lifestyles more environment-friendly or by purchasing “carbon credits,” which pay for a tree to be planted or for part of a solar power project in a developing country.

And some programs are oriented entirely around the idea of sustainability. The international community-service organization Global Routes, for example, offers opportunities for students to work on bio-intensive organic gardening projects in Africa.

But even at Living Routes, which offers programs designed to encourage students to develop more environmentally sustainable lifestyles through these types of opportunities, doubts remain about whether the results justify the flights.

“We would like to believe that [the programs] change students and that they are therefore worth the environmental impacts,” Greenberg said. “But if over the years that doesn’t pan out, we’re going to be hard-pressed to justify the flights and the travel.”

Edwards is concerned not only by the environmental damage caused by students when they travel, but also by the cultural impact these students may have once they reach their destinations.

Having a “large flock” of American students descending on a community to experience its particular lifestyle may end up changing that lifestyle in the process, Edwards said. As an example, she cited Barcelona, a complex bilingual region where the Catalan culture may be negatively impacted by hordes of international students speaking English and learning Spanish.

Emily Flaxman ’09, who studied in Barcelona last semester, said the American student presence in the city is palpable.

“I could only find parties for American students,” Flaxman said. “[Clubs] would offer good cover charges just for American students.”

At the same time, though, Flaxman said she is not sure that Barcelona is unwilling to absorb the influx of Americans — rather, the Catalan people seem to be welcoming the Americans and their culture with open arms, she said.

While Yale has no specific plans as of yet to address the challenges of environmental and cultural sustainability in study abroad, Edwards said she hopes to encourage the community to think about the issues presented by travel abroad in the coming months.

And these issues are certainly not specific to Yale alone. The number of American students studying abroad each year may increase dramatically if NAFSA’s Lincoln Commission on study abroad has its way.

The commission announced in 2005 that it hopes to boost the number of American students studying abroad annually to one million within the next decade. About a quarter of that number currently studies abroad each year.

The goal has received mixed reviews from the study-abroad community. While applauding the idea behind the commission’s recommendation, some wonder whether a dramatic increase in the number of students studying abroad can be realized without significant detrimental effects on the environment and on local cultures.

Before setting out to increase the quantity of study-abroad participants, programs should take a careful look at the “quality” of programming, said Akilah Clarke, university-relations manager at the study abroad provider SIT Study Abroad. They should examine, among other things, the potential impact on the affected communities, how long the students will be abroad and what they plan to do with their experiences when they return to the United States, Clarke said.

For Andrew Riven, executive director of Global Routes, the study-abroad experience is a valuable and maturing one for participants and should be opened to a broader swath of students. Still, he said, he is unsure where to draw the line when faced with the potential for significant environmental damage — especially given that equally valuable learning experiences could potentially take place within the United States.

Short of halting study-abroad trips, the most immediate solution might be to change how students approach their study-abroad experiences, program administrators and students said.

Mila Dunbar-Irwin ’08, who participated in a conservation and ecology program in Botswana last spring, suggested that Yale emphasize the importance of bringing a sustainability-oriented mind set into other countries, both with respect to the environment and the local culture.

Eventually, Edwards hopes Yale will make sustainability abroad just as much of a priority as it is on campus.

“If we’re turning the lights off in New Haven, we should be turning off lights in Beijing as well,” she said.

Comments

  • nafsa-er

    the idea that sending american kids to africa to work in an "eco-village" planting trees can offset their carbon emissions seems off (actually, it seems to pander to eco-minded students). if the students donated the cost of the plane ticket to hire local africans (who live in real villages) it would create so more jobs, and mostly likely the locals could do a much better job planting trees than a yalie who has mostly likely only ever planted some plants at home.

    instead, let's not try to justify (or calm our conscience) by thinking we can work off our sins (air travel, yikes!). study abroad is not bad, it's great - it's awesome. and yes, part of that involves getting into an airplane. but we shouldn't all have to go work in eco-villages to do penance.

    i think the best bet is for study abroad companies to offer (wealthy) students the opportunity to purchase carbon offsets if they wish.

    the idea of a NAFSA committee on sustainability being chaired by a guy whose company sells trips marketed as "sustainable study abroad" seems like a bit of a conflict of interest. it's like asking Sergey Brin to chair the committee on web standards for search algorithms… not that he wouldn't do an awesome job, but, well, he does stand to gain from it.