Five ways to design sustainable study abroad programs


Contrary to common opinion, I believe studying abroad – anywhere – promotes sustainability.  But we need to go further.  With climate change and peak oil looming, I believe all study abroad programs, not just those with a sustainability focus like Living Routes, need to adopt higher standards of sustainable practices.  But what do these standards look like?

From \’08-\’10, I had the privilege of Chairing the Subcommittee on Sustainability Standards for The Forum on Education Abroad.  Our mission was to review their Standards of Good Practice and Code of Ethics documents and suggest revisions through the lens of environmental and social responsibility. In this blog mini-series I will flesh out four identified strategies, using Living Routes as a case study:

  1. Program Design and Management
  2. Student Learning
  3. Staff Training and Office Management
  4. Promotion

Let\’s start with Program Design and Management.  The question we are asking here is:

\”How does a study abroad organization consider the safety and welfare of the staff, community, and local environment in the design, management and termination of its programs?\”

We came up with five main ideas:

1) \”Solicit local community and institutional input and integrate local values and practices into program design and management when appropriate.\”


For example, site directors might explore using Appreciative Inquiry and principles of Public Participation during program development to identify and incorporate local norms, such as community celebrations honoring our relationship with the natural world or common practices of reducing, re-using, and recycling precious resources.

With Living Routes, the whole point of our programs is to integrate students within communities that model sustainable values and practices.  Whether it is getting around on bicycles, exchanging goods in the local free store, or taking time to express gratitude before a meal, students learn about sustainability by living it.

2) \”Utilize local experts, instructors, and other community resource individuals and groups when practical.\”

Its vital that directors prioritize community engagement and involve local stakeholders at all levels when designing programs. There are too many stories of universities buying up tracts of land to create satellite campuses with little to no local input in their design.

Living Routes is proud to almost exclusively hire local faculty and staff to manage our programs.  These local experts know the community and culture better than anyone and their salaries remain in-country, further supporting the local economy.

3) Seek out opportunities to utilize goods and services that are locally-sourced and environment-friendly and strive to work with vendors who are socially, environmentally and economically responsible.


From transportation to supplies, from accommodations to food, directors can make informed purchasing decisions that support the local economy and environment.  How about committing to purchase only Fair Trade products when available?  With food in particular, there are lots of resources about how to buy local and develop  sustainable food purchasing policies. Let\’s challenge our students to maintain a 100 Mile Diet and support organic producers!  It is also useful to develop a vendor code of conduct (e.g. Fairmount Minerals or SAP) so practices can be maintained even with staff turnover.


Ecovillages\’ commitment to living well and lightly typically translates to being local and health-conscious.  For example, students on Living Routes programs generally eat organic produce from farms within or associated with their host communities and residences are typically made out of local materials such as keet, earth bricks, or – at Findhorn in northern Scotland – out of recycled whisky barrels!

4) \”Have a defined system for regularly evaluating and reducing its programs\’ harmful environmental and social impacts.\”

Ask for student feedback about program impacts in end-of-program evaluations.  Begin to audit program CO2 emissions and mitigation efforts.  Include environmental and social impact criteria in regular site reviews.  Sustainable Travel International\’s Checklist and the University of Washington\’s Exploration Seminar Program Policy on Sustainability, Responsibility and Conservation are good places to get ideas.

Living Routes has a well articulated Carbon Consciousness strategy that I will describe in more detail in a future post.  In 2007, we also began asking students to respond to pre-, post-, six-month post- and two-year post-surveys that explore students sustainability-related beliefs and behaviors.  Our intention is to discover the long-term impact of our programs on students lifestyle choices.

5) Use resources to strengthen collective assets such as local schools, libraries, health programs, or land and water conservation projects.


What are programs giving back to the communities that support them?  Not only do such support build strong working relationships, they are excellent opportunities for students to engage in service learning and work side-by-side with local residents.  For examples of potential projects, check out the Geotourism Challenge and the Community Toolbox.

At Living Routes, we have commissioned solar cookers and supported local students to join our programs in Senegal; helped develop an electric rickshaw prototype in India; built a recycling shed in Mexico and an EcoCentre in Peru; and planted trees just about everywhere we go.

These are just a few ideas for how to design and manage study abroad programs that take their social and environmental impact into account.  What did I miss?  What are you doing on your programs that you would like to share with others?  This is all a work in progress, so please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments. Thanks!

In my next post, I will explore ways study abroad programs can further incorporate sustainability into their curricula and student learning opportunities.

In community,
– Daniel