University of Montana President Royce Engstrom has said he wants 75 percent of the school’s undergraduate students to study abroad by 2020.
Compare that with the number of students nationwide enrolled at a four-year university or college who currently study abroad: 1 percent.
“That’s a great goal,” said Meghann Curtis, the deputy assistant secretary for academic programs at the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. It is important that university leaders make international education a priority and commit resources to helping students study abroad, she said.
It’s rare for top level state department officials to visit UM. However, Curtis is on campus this week evaluating a Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center exchange program funded by a U.S. State Department grant. Curtis took over as the deputy assistant secretary in October and is familiarizing herself with programs she oversees. This is her first domestic trip.
The program is called the Study of the U.S. Institute on Global Environmental Issues. It’s in its third year on the UM campus. Nineteen English-speaking undergraduate students from Southeast Asia traveled to UM for a month to study environmental issues and learn about American culture.
It’s one of six grants the Mansfield Center has received in the last three years from the State Department to offer exchange programs that focus on everything from empowering women to environmental policy, said Deena Mansour, Mansfield Center project director.
The State Department sees public diplomacy value in these exchange programs, Curtis said.
There are many reasons that the State Department is interested in selecting sites like Montana to host foreign exchange programs. Many of these exchange students have never traveled outside their home countries or even flown on an airplane before, she said. Montana offers a more relaxed environment in which to introduce these students to American culture.
Plus, the State Department wants to give foreign students a well-rounded picture of American culture, which means having them travel to rural areas as well as metropolitan ones.
These 19 students, for example, will leave Montana at the end of July to spend time in Louisiana and Washington, D.C., before returning to their home countries of Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia.
Also, the State Department looks for host cities where the students can engage with the community. On Wednesday, the visiting students traveled to a powwow and rodeo and hiked up Mount Sentinel to watch the Fourth of July fireworks. They stay with host families.
This is the third year the Mansfield Center has offered this particular exchange program and Mansour says the center hopes to continue offering it in the future.
The number of foreign students enrolled in universities in Montana in 2011 rose 6.1 percent from the previous year to 1,301 students, according to data compiled by the Institute of International Education.
More than 900 of these students are enrolled at UM or Montana State University and a majority are from Saudi Arabia.
UM has 416 international students from 70 countries studying in Missoula, according to the Institute of International Education.
Last year, 300 UM students chose to study abroad. That’s not as high as Curtis would like considering the school’s 15,000 total students. However, she’s encouraged that Engstrom has identified study abroad as an area in which the school can improve and is taking the steps to do that.
The Mansfield Center is dedicated to improving Asian-U.S. foreign relations.