By Darren E. Weiss

In 2005, the U.S. Senate declared 2006 the “Year of Study Abroad.” However, last year only about 200,000 U.S. students traveled abroad, representing only a little more than one percent of the total number of enrolled undergraduates in the nation. According to many members of Congress, that statistic is far too small.

The recent Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Foundation Act — inspired by the work of the late Senator Paul Simon (D-IL) — was introduced to Congress in March, and proposes a dramatic increase in the number of American college students who study abroad.

That number is expected to reach one million annually by 2017.

One goal of the legislation, which is based on recommendations published by the 2004 bipartisan Lincoln Study Abroad Commission, is to make studying abroad the standard for college students, not the exception.

The Act works to promote study abroad programs in developing countries, especially those in Africa and Asia.

Kerry Bolognese of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (NASULGC), a higher-education alliance of over 200 public universities and land-grant institutions, said that thirty-six percent of all American students studying abroad travel to one of four European countries, while less than 6,000 travel to China or India.

“[The bill] is trying to bring out the entrepreneurial spirit of faculty and administrators in developing countries,” he said. “We’re confident that the supply is there, [because] the demand is already there.”

Bolognese, who also worked as a consultant for the House Foreign Affairs Committee from 1984 to 1992, said that many students want to go to developing countries but cannot, because few programs exist there.

On the other hand, Jennifer Poulakidas, vice president of congressional affairs at NASULGC, said that while some programs do exist for study in developing and non-traditional countries, many schools do not put much emphasis on these programs.

The Paul Simon Act is important, she said, because it will “turn light to some programs that are currently taking place.”

Studying can also be cheaper in non-traditional countries than in others, Poulakidas said. For example, one semester-long program in Mexico, travel included, is cheaper than one semester at Michigan State University.

“There are a lot of different reasons — intellectual curiosity, cultural interests, and even sometimes pocketbook expenses — that come into play when looking at non-traditional destinations,” Poulakidas said.

This year marks the second in a row that study abroad bills have been introduced in Congress.

Representatives Tom Lantos (D-CA) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) introduced this year’s bill in the House, while Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Norm Coleman (R-MN) did the same in the Senate. The House bill currently has 46 bipartisan co-sponsors; the Senate bill has 37.

The new bill authorizes $80 million for grants to students, colleges and universities, and non-governmental organizations that provide study abroad programs. It will also create an independent government entity, the Senator Paul Simon Foundation, to administer the program. The foundation would have the authority to leverage funds from the private sector.

Rebecca Hovey firmly believes in the importance of studying abroad. She works for the School for International Training (SIT), an accredited college in Vermont that focuses on intercultural education.

“It is a profound learning experience to realize that the way we think about such basic things as family, work, cultural norms, and our relationship to nature can be so different in another setting,” Hovey said.

The SIT actively works with other countries to ensure students from the U.S. have a positive impact abroad.

The school advocates unique courses that are not found in America and are taught by local faculty and administrators abroad.

Hovey continued, “[Studying abroad] can really change the way you look at the world.”