Sustainability in international education: Going green and going global

In the last several decades, institutions of higher education have expanded their efforts to ‘go global’ and ‘go green.’ By putting increasing emphasis on bringing the world to the classroom through the integration of international topics, perspectives, and content while also bringing the classroom to the world through study away, institutions aim to graduate students with expanded worldviews fit for work in the global marketplace. Simultaneously, environmental politics and a greater awareness of the dangers of climate change have prompted wide-scale societal change, with colleges and universities at the forefront of these efforts. 

Contradictions and tensions exist between these efforts: carbon emissions from international flights and other transportation associated with study away damage the stability of Earth’s climate and by extension the very cultures and people it seeks to illuminate. While the benefits of study away experiences may outweigh the environmental costs of the travel it requires, this is not always the case. Ultimately, the decision of whether to study away is a nuanced one — one that cannot be reduced to a simple quota for carbon emissions or choosing not to attend a program. Students should be able to and be encouraged to weigh their environmental impact against the benefits of study away on their personal, academic, and professional goals. To reconcile these tensions, we must ask: What are the emissions associated with travel to study away sites and where lie the synergies between the goals of higher education institutions and the goals of students?

As a Sustainability in International Education intern with the Zilkha Center and the Office of International Education and Study Away, I started with the first question and then examined the second. I compiled and analyzed data on student travel over the past few months using information such as student class year, program name, destination of travel, and major from fall 2016 through spring 2022. My primary focus was on calculating the carbon emissions associated with travel in kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalents (kg CO2e), which was a multi-step task involving determining program destination airports, calculating flight distances and converting them to carbon emissions using the UK’s Department for Environment, Food, & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) conversion factors for international long-haul air travel. I was supported in this work by Christina Stoiciu and Isabel Hansen from International Education and Study Away and Tanja Srebotnjak from the Zilkha Center. 

Once I had obtained the estimated emissions for each student’s trip, I looked for trends in the data based on: the major(s) of students studying away, the emissions associated with a given major, and the emissions per capita for said major; the programs students used for study abroad, including the frequency of a program each year; and frequency of a given region of travel in each year. 

As I made (so, so many!) graphs of these trends, I found myself having to throw out the window my initial assumptions about study away and sustainability movements in higher education. Despite a greater acknowledgement of the environmental impact of air travel on the environment in recent years, travel emissions by Williams students for study away has stayed relatively constant. It was only the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions that drastically decreased air travel and associated emissions, although it has begun to rebound in the academic year 2021-22. The pandemic also saw a marked decline of study away destinations located outside of the World Bank regions “Europe and Central Asia” and “North America” from an average of forty-five students pre-pandemic to zero in fall 2021. 

When I started my internship, I didn’t expect the demographics of study away to change as drastically as they did both at the height of the pandemic and in its aftermath. I look forward to adding new data for spring 2022 to our analysis to find if these demographic changes are permanent or if, as our world progressively opens up once again, we find ourselves falling into the same study away patterns as before the pandemic.

I’ll leave you with a few fun facts about study away: the three most popular majors for study away are economics, political science, and math; our average emissions per academic year from 2016 to 2020 are 56 times the emissions of an average passenger vehicle in one year; and the most frequently used third-party study away program is the Institute for International Education of Students (IES).

– Ari Quasney ’25, Sustainability in International Education intern