Kristin Podboy didn't go to Chatham University for Mayan ruins or rain forests, but her first-ever study abroad trip to Guatemala and Belize may prove the most memorable part of her college years.
Ms. Podboy, 20, a Washington, Pa., junior studying psychology, can easily swap exotic travel stories with peers on the women's campus. That's because half the school's undergraduates during their four years there will pack their bags and earn credit overseas in settings from England to Korea to Argentina.
Study abroad by Americans is booming, up 150 percent in a decade and 8 percent in 2006-07, the most current year for available data, according to the annual "Open Doors" report being released today by the Institute of International Education.
The growth isn't simply on big campuses like Penn State University, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh. Smaller schools like Chatham also have been driving home the importance of getting a global perspective.
Laura Armesto, Chatham's vice president for academic affairs, sees several reasons students, including the 729 undergraduates at her school, increasingly view it as a must-do before graduation.
"No. 1, employers are asking for it, and No. 2, more and more families are traveling themselves, so they understand the value of it," she said. "And third, the government I think has seen the light. It's pushing language learning with scholarships and programs and all sorts of things."
This year's institute survey also finds the number of international students in the U.S. is at an all-time high, up 7 percent to 623,805 in 2007-08. That continues a turnaround from the years just after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when harsher government scrutiny and visa snags kept some foreigners away.
"It says the label 'made in America,' when it comes to education, is still highly valued and greatly prized," said Allan Goodman, president and chief executive officer of the Institute of International Education, based in New York City. "We are the leading destination. We have been for a long time."
India was the top place of origin for international students coming to the U.S., sending 94,563 students, a 13 percent increase over the previous year. China was next with 81,127 students, up 20 percent, and Korea sent 69,124 students, an 11 percent gain.
For Americans, study abroad doesn't always mean a semester-long commitment. In fact, 55 percent of the 241,791 U.S. students who went overseas chose shorter programs.
Ms. Podboy's two-week stay in May earned her three credits and was part of Chatham Abroad, a program of two- to eight-week trips for which students contribute $1,000 plus spending money and the school pays for the rest. Those in her travel group studied the local environment, glimpsing village life in a jungle and sleeping at night in a hotel bed protected by mosquito netting.
It was an awe-inspiring journey. One afternoon in Tikal, Guatemala, she stood atop a temple balcony and watched colors and sights change as daylight gave way to dusk.
"I could see all these temples rising up from the thick jungle," she said. "It was almost otherworldly."
The most popular study destination for Americans remains the United Kingdom, drawing 32,705 students. Italy attracted the second largest total, 27,831, followed by Spain, which attracted 24,005 Americans.
But more exotic spots have gained in popularity. Study trips were up by 20 percent to Asia, by 19 percent to Africa and by 7 percent to the Middle East, though the Middle East represents only 1 percent of U.S. study abroad.
There also were sizable gains for Ecuador, South Africa, Argentina, China and India.
Foreign students put $15.5 billion into the U.S. economy through tuition and personal spending. Pennsylvania is the seventh most popular state, hosting 26,090 students.
At Chatham, doubling international enrollment in three years to 90 students is helping make up for an expected decline in state high school graduates through 2015, officials said. It's partly why the global economic crisis is a growing concern.
Though the institute says it's too soon to assess the likely impact, Dr. Armesto already notices more foreign students inquiring about aid.
"A lot of people overseas are losing their jobs," she said. "They're struggling like we are."
Bill Schackner can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1977. First Published November 17, 2008 5:00 AM