SALT LAKE CITY — When Jessica Rigby headed off to China to teach English to elementary school kids earlier this year, she had no idea the celebrity presence she would have there.
"One girl asked if she could have one of the hairs off of my head," Rigby said. "I laughed and gave her one, and she kissed it and put it in her pocket. Later, I saw her showing it to all of her friends."
In the remote small town of Linchuan, she remains one of only five fluent English speakers surrounded by folks who had never seen a white person outside their TV set before.
College-age Americans packing their bags and heading off to remote locations like Linchuan is nothing new, but it's becoming increasingly common. Study abroad programs have more than tripled in the past 20 years, according to the Open Doors Report by the Institute of International Education (IIE), one of the largest institutions over international student exchange between the U.S. and other countries. In addition to that increase, more students are expanding their horizons even more, to places like China and Central Africa and even India, which had a 44 percent increase in students studying there from 2008-09. A total of 14 of the top 25 destinations were outside of Western Europe in 2010, according to the same report, and that is a huge change, according to IIE President and CEO Allan Goodman, who said in past years the only destinations students wanted to visit was in Europe.
"The world really is flat economic in cultural terms," Goodman said. "America is the world's leading superpower. We have global responsibilities. You can't do that unless you speak other languages and are familiar with cultures beyond our borders."
One school making huge strides in that expansion is Brigham Young University, which the Open Doors Report ranked as having the 15th largest study abroad program in the nation.
"The people of Utah are a little bit ahead of the game because missions take place abroad, and they play a very important part in a young person's development," Goodman said.
The director of BYU's study abroad programs, Timothy Elliot, said at BYU more faculty and students have shown interest in visiting remote locations compared to years in the past. He also said many instructors on location with the students are even more dedicated to not only getting students to new places but also giving assignments that force the students to get outside their comfort zone and talk to locals.
"Initially the coursework on the program is designed to give them incentive to get out and be involved," Elliot said. "They have to do research or practice language or discover cultural aspects."
In Vienna, Austria in the summer of 2010, one instructor assigned the students to visit a local gathering spot to interact with the locals without roommates or anyone else accompanying them and then to write a journal entry about their experience. BYU student Kayla Franson settled on a small bakery and ordered some hot chocolate in German to complete that assignment.
"I felt better about doing that when it was required," she said. "It's harder to find an excuse when you're alone. Those are good exercises to get us out and talking."
While in Vienna, she had to learn to deal with cultural differences like smaller fridges, only bottled water at restaurants and a quieter European mentality, but she says at the end of her four months there, she viewed Vienna as her home.
"Anytime I hear people talking about (Vienna) or see pictures, I feel a kinship to it," Franson said. "I feel like I have a little connection to that part of the world."
Along with Franson, fellow BYU student Hannah Dunn advised any college student to take the opportunity to go international, regardless of their financial sitation.
"It was worth every penny, and it was a lot of pennies," said Dunn, who went to London for a spring term. "I really think it was by far the best decision I've ever made."
Dunn had the chance to see the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton kissing in a tower after the wedding with thousands of people in the procession.
"I felt British right then because I was there at the wedding," Dunn said. "It made me tear up because all those people were so unified for the couple. We bash our president, but with the royal couple, everyone loves them and supports the royalty."
Dunn isn't the only one advocating international travel.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently posted a YouTube video promoting the idea of administrators and students making study overseas a more integral focus in academic endeavors.
"To remain the leader in this ever-changing world, we have to push ourselves not just to think globally, but to get out there and study globally as well," Clinton said.