Mandate study abroad?

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Written by Adrien Wing

I have been involved in teaching abroad since 1996. This time period included 6 summers in South Africa, 11 summers in France, and now one semester in London. The pictures below show Iowa students from my Arcachon, France 2010 summer program, who studied Law in the Muslim World with me there, then visiting the Pyramids and also the North Cairo, Egypt chief judge and his colleagues. I am firmly convinced that all students should have foreign opportunities whether in high school, university, or law school. Many universities have increased or are actively trying to augment their students going abroad. On the law school level, this could be done by encouraging folks to go after their first year summer, or during intercessions, spring break, entire semesters or a full year. The goal could be that everyone would have the opportunity to undergo some experience with a foreign culture and a foreign legal system. I separate the two because the legal system cannot be understood outside its broader cultural context, so it is important to experience both. Right now, there are no shortage of programs. Currently, more than 100 law schools offer programs, and most are open to all 2L and 3L students at ABA schools.

Iowa students at the pyramids

Meeting with judges at North Cairo court house

I know that I feel that I am educating the future leaders of the United States. They will be the ones to make changes in our society for the 21st century. To be most effective, these young people need to be exposed to different cultures, manners of thinking, and various legal systems. The abroad experience can help the American student have a deeper understanding of the U.S. system as well. Their future careers may have global aspects in ways unimaginable in prior eras. They need to meet their counterparts from other nations who will lead their respective countries. They all may play important roles in the legal and political systems of the world.

There are many considerations to think about if we were to mandate or highly recommend study abroad, thus potentially vastly increasing the demand. Covering the higher cost to travel to and live in some countries is a hurdle, but is doable by working it into the year’s financial aid budget. The more difficult aspect is the human component–finding enough professors knowledgeable enough about the other culture, willing to go AND suitable to lead a sufficient number of potentially size-capped student groups. Suitability is not easy. Professors may be used to only interacting with their students a few hours a week, including class time and office hours. Responsibilities abroad may be 24/7 even though law students are adults, perhaps in a country where you must worry about everything from potential terrorist incidents to bar brawls that can lead to imprisonment. In addition to my professor function, I have found directing a program to also resemble a camp counselor, which suits my mothering personality, but may not be everyone’s cup of tea. I feel blessed to get to know the students much more thoroughly than back at home. The groups may need to be capped for logistical considerations, potentially increasing the need to expand capacity.

Diplomacy with local institutions and people is often required, and errors may jeopardize the future sustainability of the program. The lack of foreign language skills may also be an impediment for many faculty. It might be possible to have an experienced administrator accompany the short term groups who could focus on logistics, meetings, etc. to assist the professor, who could then focus more on professing. Alternatively, local people/companies can be found in some countries to orchestrate these aspects.

Do you think mandating or recommending study abroad while in law school should be a goal in the foreseeable future?