If you’re concerned about the state of our planet and want to make the world a better place, study abroad. Seriously. I know, in an industry powered by greenhouse-gas emitting jet fuel, where your one flight will emit more CO2 than most people you meet will generate in a full year, you might think that being environmentally friendly and studying abroad are incompatible. However, quite the opposite is true; study abroad forces us to “think globally,” which is essential to effectively “act locally.” In fact, as eco-activist Bill McKibben said,

Study abroad probably is the single most important kind of travel that people can be doing.

So, GO (and go green)! Explore the world! Become a global citizen! And, be prepared to come back changed and ready to work even harder for a healthy planet! But before we get all excited about the great work you’ll do for Pancha Mama after you come back from studying abroad, here are some suggestions for choosing a high quality, sustainable study abroad program so you maintain a low carbon footprint.

Silhouettes on a rock
Get ready to rock your sustainable study abroad

Find a Green Study Abroad Program

If you’re looking for an ecologically-themed experience abroad, start by checking out GoAbroad’s articles on 30 Eco-Friendly Ways to Explore the World and How to Volunteer Abroad Sustainably. You can also search for sustainable study abroad programs on GoAbroad by using subjects terms like Earth Sciences, Ecology, Environmental Studies, and Sustainable Development

If you want a full immersion, sustainable travel experience, consider studying in an ecovillage. These intentional communities are excellent places to learn about living in harmony with nature and society as they often employ innovative technologies, traditional stewardship practices, and conscious social processes. For more opportunities to study abroad in an ecovillage, check out the Global Ecovillage Network, CELL, and CAPE – Custom Academic Programs in Ecovillages.

Another useful tool to connect with like-minded travelers and program providers is the Green Passport, a Facebook page intended to network students who are wanting to raise their ecological awareness while studying abroad. All you have to do is “Like” the page and take a pledge to minimize your impact on the environment, act in culturally respectful ways, and give back to the local community.

Vet Study Abroad Program Providers

Regardless of the topic you choose to study abroad, try to learn about your selected school or program provider’s commitment to sustainability. Especially if you want to study something unrelated to the environment, while still paying attention to your carbon footprint, start your research by asking the following questions:

  • Do they integrate environmental responsibility into their mission? Do they have sustainability focused academic programs? Have they set greenhouse gas reduction goals?
  • Do they have an organization-wide commitment to diversity and social justice? Programs that honor diverse perspectives, pay their staff a living wage, and provide safeguards against discrimination are more likely to be ecologically sustainable as well.
  • Do they provide an authentic cultural experience? Do they avoid exoticism, cultural appropriation, and promoting other customs and traditions as entertainment to be consumed? Are they truly striving to integrate you into the culture or are they presenting to you a curated version of that society?
  • Does the school or provider use promotional brochures and giveaway items that are “resource-light” and made from recycled and/or compostable materials? If you attend a study abroad fair, try leaving with just a list of URLs rather than a bag stuffed with thick brochures and plastic schwag.
  • Do they hire local faculty and staff to manage their programs? Local experts know the area and culture better than anyone and their salaries remain in-country, further supporting the local economy.
  • Are goods and materials locally-sourced and environment-friendly? Are they committed to purchasing only Fair Trade products when available? Do they serve food that is local and organic? Are accommodations certified by Green Key or LEED? Do they strive to work with vendors who are socially, environmentally, and economically responsible?
  • What are they giving back to the communities that support them? Are they using resources to strengthen collective assets, such as local schools, libraries, health programs, or land and water conservation projects?

As a study abroad “customer,” you have more power than you might realize. Use your leverage while shopping around and don’t be surprised if your prodding leads to some very positive impacts, not only for you, but for future students (and the planet) as well! Be sure to read reviews and chat with program alumni whenever possible too.

Greenhouse with rooftop solar panels
Consider programs with sustainable housing in ecovillages

Become Carbon Conscious

While I do believe study abroad is worth the environmental cost of emitting greenhouse gases from international flights, I also believe it is vital that we acknowledge and account for these impacts. But how?

For a long time, I was a proponent of becoming “carbon neutral” by purchasing carbon offsets, which support reforestation, energy efficiency, and renewable energy projects and, at least theoretically, mitigate the same amount of CO2 emissions you produced. Unfortunately, carbon offsetting is plagued by a slew of challenges and controversies. 

I also came to believe that instead of buying offsets from third party providers, it is much more meaningful and efficient to support sustainability projects in the communities students are traveling to. This is why I started my own social venture, which rather than “neutralizing” our environmental “sins” through offsetting, encourages students interested in sustainable study abroad to become carbon conscious by “onsetting” the environmental costs of emissions and contributing money or time to projects that are responding to climate change.

Walk the Talk

And now, for the crux of the biscuit (as Frank Zappa would say), here are some quick tips to make your sustainable study abroad experience more ecologically and socially responsible.

Once you are abroad, GO LOCAL! Living the local lifestyle will not only provide you the deepest and most meaningful experiences, it will also make you greener! Given the U.S. has one of the largest ecological footprints of any country, you can study just about anywhere and lower your impacts simply by adopting local cultural norms and practices, such as conserving water, air drying clothes, or (God forbid!) doing away with toilet paper.

Check your privileges. Beyond striving to live in harmony with the natural world, sustainable travel also means trying to live in harmony with each other. It’s easy to assume “our way is best,” but the magic of study abroad happens when we let go of our assumptions and expectations. For example, if it’s normal to keep the indoor temperature at 80 degrees fahrenheit in the summer, don’t ask your hosts turn it down for you. If your hosts eat local meats and vegetables, don’t insist on iceberg lettuce, hamburgers, or things you eat at home. If people seem smelly because they don’t shower every day or use deodorant, don’t be offended.

Volunteers planting trees
Look for programs that incorporate hands-on service learning with reforestation projects

Try to learn about the local ecology. Ask questions about natural resources and the political situation. Talk to faculty members, local students and others you meet. Is your host community experiencing a drought? Is there a corporation trying to extract fossil fuels and polluting local communities? Are small farmers being turned out because big agriculture is taking over? Once you understand what the local concerns are, you may be able to join an organization or participate in an effort to help your host community become more sustainable. Don’t assume you know the answers. It’s best to find out from locals what’s needed, and sometimes it’s best for foreigners to do nothing rather than pretend to help.

Here are some further ideas for how to be green while studying abroad:

  • Transportation will likely be your biggest source of emissions when you are studying abroad. Minimize the amount you fly and take local transportation when possible. Many European and Asian countries have well developed bus and rail systems that make traveling between cities convenient.
  • Live close to where you study; walking to classes every day instead of taking a train from the suburbs will reduce your carbon footprint and probably provide you with a better study abroad experience.
  • Carry a reusable water bottle and see if you can go the whole program without buying a bottle of water.
  • When you shop in local markets, bring your own bags, like the locals probably do.
  • Use biodegradable soaps and organic sun block or bug repellent.
  • Support local businesses, artists, and restaurants instead of multinational chains.
  • Avoid buying kitschy souvenirs that will eventually get thrown out.
  • Never eat foods or buy products made from endangered or threatened species, lest you be haunted by hornless rhinos.
  • Try to buy and eat locally grown and processed food.
  • Use water sparingly and take quick showers, especially in drought-prone areas; challenge yourself to three minutes or less (there’s nothing wrong with stopping/starting the water!).
  • Don’t litter, even if you notice the locals doing so; it’s never okay.
  • Never take away “samples” from historical sites, parks, or cultural areas. As the old adage goes, take only photos, leave only footprints.

Following these sustainable practices will not only be better for the environment, they will also make you a happier and healthier student and a positive ambassador for your home country.

Man presenting an art piece
Paint a picture of a better world when you study abroad sustainably

Bring it Home

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, live and share your new learnings and be a force for positive change in your home campus and communities.

  • Continue practicing the green behaviors you picked up overseas (*cough* previous section *cough*).
  • Write about your experiences for your campus or town newspapers with an eco-focus.
  • Offer presentations on the environmental activities and cultural norms you practiced and observed.
  • Get involved in international and environmental clubs.
  • Connect with your school’s sustainability office and volunteer to work on their Climate Action Plan.
  • Become a peer advisor or ambassador and challenge future study abroad students be more environmentally aware and choose sustainable study abroad.
  • Volunteer with a national environmental organization to advocate for policy change.
  • Do your part to help the UN accomplish their 2030 agenda for global sustainability.
  • Stay in touch with your new friends abroad and your new identity as a global citizen!

Studying abroad is a privileged experience that few people get to have. It can be wasteful and shallow or deeply transformative. With global warming and other crises, the world faces complex challenges that require innovative leaders who are able to think globally and act locally, leaders with cross-cultural sensitivity, self-awareness, and interdisciplinary knowledge. Gain those crucial skills through green study abroad, and become the kind of change agent needed in our increasingly interconnected world.

This article was generously contributed by Earth Deeds, an organization that envisions a world of engaged change agents co-creating sustainable communities.

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