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Can “sustainable” universities make study abroad more eco-friendly?

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As universities – and entire countries – race to encourage their students to seek study abroad opportunities, one not-so-small issue is getting lost in the game of global one-upsmanship: the fact that study abroad, overall, is not very environmentally friendly.

This makes sense on futher analysis. Studying abroad involves travel, typically in a plane, which is a major source of carbon emissions. If there’s transportation for students during orientation or the program, there’s more pollution – not to mention the use of resources (electricity, gas, heat, water, etc.) in the student’s host country.

Still, the main discussions of studying abroad revolve around the importance of experiencing immersion in another culture, learning a new language and expanding one’s worldview. These conversations rarely delve into the environmental impact of spending six months in another country, points out Christopher Hirschler, a professor of health studies and Faculty Director of the study abroad program at Monmouth University in New Jersey.

Even as institutions of higher education are taking steps to become “greener” or even carbon neutral, and students are supporting on-campus sustainability initiatives as well as trying to lessen their environmental impact in their daily lives, study abroad continues to be a major draw for both groups.

Universities want to increase their international reach and prestige, while students are all-too-aware of the importance of international experience and language skills in today’s globalised job market – not to mention the idea of spending six months exploring French wine country has plenty of appeal on its own!

The Generation Study Abroad initiative, sponsored by the Institute of International Education, has already convinced hundreds of institutions to sign on to support its goal of doubling the number of US students going abroad within five years. Meanwhile, the US government is committing to increasing the numbers of US students studying in Latin America and Latin American students in the US to 100,000 for each group.

These are ambitious goals in terms of program reach and infrastructure alone, but doubling the numbers of students headed to other countries – especially developing nations – could put a strain on the host country’s ability to sustainably provide for all those students, and is certain to have a detrimental environmental impact if the proper steps aren’t taken.

What then, are eco-minded globetrotters to do?

Some universities with especially popular study abroad programs are encouraging student to take responsibility for their environmental footprint by purchasing carbon offsets or funding local sustainability projects. Such actions are especially important for students headed far away, as flights account for a significant portion of overall carbon emissions. Study abroad flights alone account for an estimated 8 percent” of the University of Denver’s total emissions, while study abroad programs at Elon University and Pacific Lutheran University are responsible for 13.5 percent and 19 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, respectively. 

Though universities can’t be expected to simply shut down their study abroad programs because of adverse environmental effects, there are other positive things they can do, according to Hirschler – including looking for community engagement projects (like those served through the ever-more-popular Alternative Spring Break programs) closer to home, and focusing on increasing the quality and depth of the programs they already offer, rather than just continuing to expand to new places.

Institutions of higher education would be wise to look at the prevailing trends and live up to students’ expectations – especially since a majority of college applicants in the US say a university’s commitment to environmental issues plays an important role in their ultimate decision.

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