The Onion (a satirical and sarcastic news-ish website) published an article this week titled: "Report: More Colleges Offering Dick-Around Abroad Programs." Personally, I think the article is hilarious because anyone who has studied abroad or works in the field knows that there's plenty of "dicking around" during these programs. But, we also know that there's also plenty of "legitimate learning and cultural engagement" (whatever that means).
Regardless of how funny I think the article is, it's important to point out that study abroad is not alone in the world of "higher education activities that involve dicking around." Student activities, Greek life, and service-learning programs all have "dicking around" coming out their ears too. In fact, I would argue that a large portion of the overall college experience involves a considerable level of doing nothing constructive, of doing the minimal amount to get by, and general laziness. With study abroad, they are just transferring the overall college experience to another country.
I also think it's worth mentioning that in the greater college experience, a large chunk of the learning and development that happens takes place in those unscheduled "moments" when students are randomly engaging with their peers, professors, and other staff on campus. Don't believe it? Read all nine billion pages of "How College Affects Students" and get back to me. By extension this is also true of the study abroad experience. It's not the classroom lectures in Salamanca or the time in the library in Kerala or the study groups at a cafe on the Gold Coast that have the biggest impact on students (although, those things are still very important). By contrast, it's the moments in between, the dicking around - as The Onion would call it - where the most learning and understanding takes place.
But we also know that the learning in these "in between moments" is much more significant when students are engaging with the host culture and people. In other words, dicking around is better if they do it with the locals.
I have a love/hate relationship with study abroad. On one hand, it's something that has the potential to change a student's life (like it did mine), an opportunity for her to learn about her own character and abilities. Along with this, study abroad can bring to light the varied social and economic issues that plague the world, the complex approaches to addressing them, and how we can all play a role in raising awareness or alleviate the problem all together.
On the other hand, to some students, study abroad is just an opportunity to go shark diving. And unless you're a marine biology major, shark diving isn't that helpful to your overall learning/development in college. (I will give a big kiss to anyone who shows me research that proves this statement wrong.)
Regardless of all this bantering about the value of study abroad and what students learn or don't learn, at the end of the day, it's better to go than not to go.
So just go.