Studying abroad has long been an important part of many BYU students' educational experience. Now, the popularity of the Kennedy Center’s International Study Programs offerings—and the hard work required to make it all happen—have been recognized with an impressive new ranking: the latest Open Doors report, released annually by the Institute of International Education, recognized BYU as #1 in the nation for number of students studying abroad.
"The Open Doors rankings show how deeply invested BYU administration and faculty are in providing international education opportunities for BYU students,” says Lynn Elliott, director of the International Study Programs (ISP) office at the Kennedy Center. “A student at BYU has many options for international education, and this makes BYU a unique place."
The Open Doors Report
The Open Doors report considers all international study opportunities for students, says Elliott; at BYU, this includes “traveling abroad with a performing group, attending the Jerusalem Center, or participating in one of the many international programs offered through the Kennedy Center.”
The report released in November 2023 covers the 2021–2022 academic year. In that school year, 2,878 BYU students participated in one of these international opportunities—including 198 different programs offered through the ISP office at the Kennedy Center—putting BYU more than 200 students higher than the second-place school, the University of Texas-Austin. (Prior to this year, BYU’s highest ranking on the Open Doors report was #14, during the 2018–2019 school year.)
This means that this ranking was achieved during a unique period of time: when the world was just emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic. Stan Benfell, director of the Kennedy Center, points out that it was the ISP office’s ability to ramp up quickly after the pandemic that allowed them to get so many students out. "As we emerged from the pandemic, BYU students were eager to travel and get back out across the world,” he told BYU University Communications. “This No. 1 ranking was only possible as a result of our Kennedy Center staff who worked tirelessly to make these opportunities a reality.”
Chris Quinlan, a program coordinator for International Study Programs, remembers how hard the ISP office and support staff at the Kennedy Center worked to get students and faculty out on programs during a time of uncertainty. “Everyone in this office is passionate about what we do here,” he says, “about getting people out there and helping to facilitate these opportunities for international experiences. But we wanted to make sure that we took the time to be certain that all of our programs conformed to the best practices of the field. We worked to get things up and running again as soon as possible, but without compromising the quality, academic integrity, or safety of our programs.”
The new ranking recognizes the value that the ISP office and Kennedy Center place on international study opportunities. “At the Kennedy Center, we consider study abroad to be an essential part of our mission,” says Benfell. “We are devoted to understanding the world and to making it a better place, and there is of course no better way to do these things than to go abroad and encounter some of the world’s richness and diversity.”
International Study at BYU
International study has been part of the BYU experience for more than sixty years. As early as 1958, professors began holding individual programs—generally for language study—in Canada and Mexico. The first official BYU study abroad program was held in in 1965, when a small group of students traveled to Salzburg, Austria to study language, music, and the humanities. At that time, study abroad programs were managed by Continuing Education. More programs were added, and in 1985, the International Study Programs office was created as part of the establishment of the David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies.
From that humble start, the international educational offerings at BYU have grown in size and popularity with every year that passes. In the 2023–2024 school year, more than 200 programs will help students have international educational experiences that can change their lives.
“I loved my study abroad experience,” says Emily Adams, a senior studying Global Supply Chain Management who spent a semester at the BYU London Centre in 2019. “Not only did it enhance my education by allowing me to see what we were studying in class, but it made me more aware of different ways of life. Amid the bustle of the city, I discovered serenity in Hyde Park, history in art, creativity in the markets, and efficiency in the Tube. As I became a more competent traveler, I gained confidence in my ability to navigate new places. During my time in London, I met people that inspired me to serve and embrace others regardless of culture, background, or circumstances. “
One thing that makes International Study Programs so widely popular at BYU is the variety of programs offered; studying abroad is not only for students studying languages, culture, or international affairs.
General education study abroad programs allow students to complete GE courses necessary for graduation while living in European metropolises. Other programs are specific to majors or academic fields from all across campus: science students can complete chemistry courses in Paris and Milan, geography students can learn about conservation and adventure travel while climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, and engineering students can study product design and development while experiencing the beauty and culture of Singapore.
The International Study Programs office also offers other types of opportunities: internships in a variety of fields across the world, field schools that offer hands-on experience, and direct enrollment programs that allow students to study at international universities. Students can perfect their Korean in Seoul, get museum and research experience at William Wordsworth’s cottage in the UK’s Lake District, or carry out anthropological field work in Morocco.
For the students who go on these programs, these experiences are invaluable for their personal, professional, and educational development. Brenna Bolinder is a senior double-majoring in Sociology and German. Her 2022 study abroad in Vienna, she says, “was pivotal in providing me with a comprehensive understanding of the language. Studying abroad became the catalyst for immersing myself in the cultural details of the language, offering invaluable interactions with native speakers.”
But the experience taught her more than just the German language, she says. “The experience broadened my knowledge and curiosity about diverse cultures, alternative experiences, and varied ways of life. Interacting with native Austrians, delving into meaningful conversations, and gaining insights into their institutions and systems significantly expanded my worldview.”
Adams says that her experience abroad continues to affect how she views the world: “Even four years later, I keep my eyes open for jobs and opportunities where I can travel and continue making international connections. Because of my experience in London, I feel more prepared intellectually, personally, and professionally to learn, serve, and explore.”
Interested in Going Abroad?
Bolinder encourages her fellow students to consider an international study experience: “I consistently advocate for study abroad programs to other students, recognizing education abroad as an unparalleled opportunity that goes beyond campus life.”
Students can see what opportunities are available on the Find Your Program page on the Kennedy Center website. They can also visit the Kennedy Center, located in the Herald R. Clark Building on campus, to learn more, or check out the Study Abroad Fair held each fall and winter semester.
Unfortunately, many students don't pursue international education experiences while at BYU because they assume they won't be able to afford it. Cory Leonard, Associate Director for Special Programs at the Kennedy Center, hopes that's a barrier that many students can overcome: "We want every BYU student to be able to afford an educational experience abroad. Right now, 2/3 of all students don’t participate, with cost being a major barrier. That’s why our Global Opportunity Initiative, supported generously by the Sorensen Legacy Foundation, alumni, and friends, makes the difference for first-gen, international, married, and hard-working students. These learning experiences bring global awareness, cultural competence, and language and area studies expertise, and they make a difference in students’ academic, professional and personal lives."
Students who would not otherwise be able to afford to study abroad are encouraged to check the scholarship out. And BYU alumni, faculty, students, and friends are encouraged to donate to keep the scholarship going; even a small gift can make a big difference to help students go abroad.