Is Study Abroad a Girl Thing?

October 18, 2017

There are so many reasons students decide to study abroad. Getting college credit while exploring a new country? Check. Learning about a culture that’s different than yours? Check. Broadening your horizons, both literally and figuratively? Double check. Plus, traveling always makes for cool profile pictures.

Did you know that, of all US college students that study abroad, 65% of them are women? This is true for UVA as well. In the 2016-2017 school year, 67.9% of the undergraduates that studied abroad were women.

Why aren’t men taking advantage of the benefits study abroad offers to college students?

There isn’t a definitive answer to this problem, but we can make some educated guesses, just like the study abroad offices all over the US that are trying to encourage men to join their programs. The first and likely largest hypothesis for this trend includes the much heavier weight of men in STEM majors, which often have very strict course requirements. On multiple occasions, I have heard Engineering students at UVA scoff at the prospect of studying abroad, knowing that there is no way they are going to find courses in another country that will map onto the courses that they’re required to take here at UVA to graduate on time.

Students in the Engineering School at UVA made up only 8.3% of the undergraduate students that studied abroad last year. Because only 32% of the Engineering School is female, this may explain the gender discrepancy. But even among Engineers, women still study abroad more than men do, and that’s when they have the same major!

So, the limitations on STEM majors are one potential reason men don’t study abroad as often, but there have to be others. After all, men major in business, and philosophy, and many other less stringent fields. Maybe there’s something about the culture of college and study abroad that makes men less likely to leave the US?

Perhaps it’s the tendency that women have to engage more with college life than men; they see volunteering, doing extracurricular activities, and studying abroad as part of a full college experience, while men tend to stay away from programs that they feel they can’t apply to their desired job field. College is simply a means to an end, and that end is employment. Maybe the “bro” mentality keeps guys from leaving their friend groups to go study abroad, while women are more likely to venture out and try to make new friends.

Another major reason that women might travel through study abroad programs while men do not is that, for women, traveling on their own without a program can be extremely dangerous. Have you ever heard your guy friends say, “Hitchhiking through Europe was an amazing experience, I totally recommend it,” and wondered about the marvels of male privilege and their cluelessness about how dangerous the world can be? College programs make traveling much safer, and when you’re a woman who constantly has to think about safety, these programs are very alluring.

That’s not to say that going with a college program eliminates all danger, but that the amount of security a college program provides is just enough for women to snatch up the opportunity. Men continue to travel on their own, blissfully unconcerned by the thoughts of safety that plague every woman, constantly.

Pencil drawings of a variety of international sites with "The Grand Tour" written in red font over a yellow background

What about the lack of men studying abroad is so troubling? Why are study abroad programs trying so hard to figure out why men aren’t signing up?

Travel obviously isn’t a magical cure for bigotry, but often, an intimate exploration of another culture chips away at closed-minded beliefs in a way that simply learning about other cultures cannot (though some people in business and engineering don’t even do that). Exposure to other ways of life is important! What better way to better yourself than taking a semester or a few weeks during the summer to a country where you’ve never been, to experience a culture you know very little about?

The problem is, no one really knows the main reason that’s keeping men from studying abroad, probably because it’s a confusing combination of all the reasons I listed above. This web of socialization, credit requirements, and expectations is going to be hard to break, but I think getting men to explore the world through the lens of learning about cultural difference and acceptance is super important, and the reason college programs should keep pushing to increase men’s participation.

The education abroad office at UVA is working hard to close this gap, but the process is ongoing and challenging. Part of it involves making study abroad more accessible to more students, including those majoring in STEM fields, and the rest involves changing the dominant ideas surrounding studying abroad and what’s important to get out of a college experience.

You may be thinking, “Gosh, why aren’t more men taking advantage of study abroad opportunities? Why aren’t I taking advantage of study abroad opportunities?” Check out the Education Abroad website and see if you can make study abroad a part of your college experience!

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