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  • Study Abroad: Geography Does It BetterPresidential Address delivered to the Association of Pacific Coast Geographers, 75th annual meeting, Olympia, WA, October 6, 2012
  • James R. Keese (bio)


As geographers, I think we all believe in study abroad. Many of us are products of study abroad. We have gone as students, researchers, or faculty on international programs. My first study-abroad experience came in 1986, when as an undergraduate I participated in a London Study Program. The world opened up for me, and my life was changed forever. I became a geographer after I went abroad. Students consistently state that their study abroad experience was the most important part of their university education (WSU 2006).

I think we are all aware of the benefits of study abroad. Students gain a global perspective. They develop cross-cultural understanding and an appreciation of cultural differences. Going abroad challenges us to grow personally, and it changes our world view. Study abroad is clearly the best way to learn a second language. And finally, students are better prepared for a career or graduate school. However, this paper is not about the benefits of study abroad. That would be preaching to the choir. We all know the benefits. We have lived them. We are the true believers.

The purpose of this paper is to answer the following questions: Why is geography as a discipline so well suited to study abroad? What concepts does geography bring to study abroad programs? I argue that geography does study abroad better.

This is not a self-congratulatory pat on the back, saying as geographers, “We are so good.” This assertion is based on my faculty experience in study abroad over the past twelve years. I have taken students to Mexico three times, to Spain twice, and I created Cal Poly’s Peru Study Abroad Program (and will be going with my fourth group this summer). I was also Cal Poly’s representative on the California State University’s Academic Council for International Programs. And I have published on the topic (see Keese 2011, [End Page 15] Keese and O’Brien in press). In addition, this paper draws on the experience of the study abroad office at Cal Poly. The university runs six quarter-long faculty-led programs to five countries, managing all aspects including recruiting students and faculty to participate in them. To support my assertion that geography does study abroad better, I also draw on the geography literature, including a special issue of the Journal of Geography (Veeck and Biles 2009), and the ideas of three AAG presidents, including two from the Pacific Coast region.

Geography Themes and Study Abroad

All study abroad programs have, or should have, a cultural element that helps students understand the place in which they are studying. Each of Cal Poly’s six quarter-long study abroad programs has a general education course on the culture of the place. (They are listed under the Humanities prefix, HUM 310: Humanities in World Cultures, with subtitles for countries or regions.) I have taught Culture of Mexico, Culture of Spain, and Culture of Latin America courses, depending on the program. As a geographer, I draw on a rich set of concepts and theories from cultural and regional geography to develop these courses. I first became aware of the value of a culture course when I taught in Mexico in 2001 and 2002. Students took two courses. They all studied Spanish. However, for the second course they chose either the Mexican culture course or an agribusiness marketing course taught by another Cal Poly faculty member. The students who studied Mexican culture had a very different level of appreciation and respect for Mexican people than those who did not. At the end of the program, I saw a video posted online by some of the agribusiness students in which they were making fun of Mexicans using a very derogatory accent.

I also advise Cal Poly’s study abroad office and help with faculty recruitment and program development. Over time, it has become apparent that faculty from other disciplines often struggle to develop the culture courses. They are unable to break out of their narrow disciplinary...


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