Foreign Service

London Business students help others-and themselves-while studying abroad

For undergraduates in the Opus College of Business, giving back to the community is more than a slogan – it’s a prerequisite for graduation. And for business students studying in London each fall, there is an opportunity to connect with their host country in a unique and meaningful way.  

The Business Learning Through Service course (Business 200) first was offered in September 1991 as a way to help students understand that organizations have an obligation to the communities in which they do business. The experience is a powerful one for the more than 800 students who enroll in the noncredit course each year.

“Many students are concerned about finding time for their service work,” said Dr. Barbara Gorski, the program’s coordinator since 2001. “They already are juggling class, work, family and social obligations. But once involved, they are amazed at the impact they can have.”

Combining career preparedness with community outreach has long been a hallmark of a St. Thomas education. According to the St. Thomas statement of purpose, the university aspires to “develop morally responsible individuals who combine career competency … while fostering in the student a tradition of service to the public welfare.” By requiring all business majors and minors to enroll in the Business 200 course, the Opus College of Business successfully integrates its curriculum with the university’s mission.

After four years of service work primarily in the Twin Cities metropolitan area, the Business 200 program was expanded in fall 1995 to include the London Business Semester. Like their peers back on campus in Minnesota, London Business Semester students must complete the required 40 hours of community service with an assigned organization (students are matched with organizations based on past experience, interest and possible skill development). The only difference: Their service work happens 4,000 miles from St. Thomas. 

Studying abroad introduces students to a new perspective on work, life and education. The 50 or so undergraduate business students who travel to London each fall must adjust quickly while trying to learn their way around an ancient and huge city. While St. Thomas professors teach some of their courses, British faculty teach others. American students quickly learn that teaching styles can vary throughout the world.

“Classes are not as structured as they are in the United States,” said Krista Downs, a junior who completed her fall semester in London in last year. “The instructors don’t necessarily keep track of your progress. And there are ‘suggested’ reading lists of 10 or more books … contrary to the assigned texts at St. Thomas.”

An accounting major, Downs chose to study abroad as a way to experience a new culture. Her service-learning assignment allowed her to have an even deeper, more personal experience in her host country.

As a senior in high school, Downs worked at an elementary school through the Junior Achievement program. Her service assignment at Our Lady’s RC School in London, then, was a perfect fit.

Every Monday morning last fall, Downs and other London Business Semester students would depart for their service jobs. Her day would begin at the school around 9 a.m., and she would spend most of the day with the class – interacting with students and assisting the teacher in whatever capacity was needed.

“My favorite part was working with the kids and getting to know the students’ backgrounds,” she said.

Community service opportunities in London, like those in the United States, vary greatly. Last fall a few St. Thomas students pounded nails and built homes with Habitat for Humanity. Some contributed time at Sixty Plus, an agency that helps older people live lives of independence and dignity. Others worked at the Ragged School Museum, a museum that teaches children – through role play and hands-on exhibits – about the history of poverty in London’s East End.

Working in some of London’s most impoverished neighborhoods, students were exposed to a part of British culture that might have gone unnoticed if it weren’t for the service-learning experience.

“Students get to see and volunteer in parts of London that they would not normally travel to,” said Sinéad Sheehan, academic and internship coordinator for the American Institute for Foreign Study. Sheehan helps to place students with volunteer organizations throughout the city.

“I think both parties benefit immensely from the experience,” she added. “Volunteering is about give and take. You give your time, but the feeling of fulfillment you take away stays with you forever.”

Like Krista Downs, Ryan Gay was able to connect with the community through his service work. While Downs was building relationships in Our Lady’s RC School classrooms, Gay was building up his physical strength with other study-abroad students, but he wasn’t hanging out at the gym. Gay, a senior with a concentration in business communication, was assigned to BTCV – a British-based conservation group that specializes in protecting and preserving the natural environment. With working sites throughout Europe, the organization has a broad reach, including efforts to do everything from improving woodland habitats to restoring wetlands. Gay’s work with BTCV varied day to day, but was almost always physically exhausting.

“I realized early that I didn’t have the skill or strength to cut down trees yet,” Gay confessed. While the physical labor was challenging, the opportunity to work together and make a difference was important. “It proves you can work hard and still have fun,” Gay said. “We’re like a community!”

The service-learning requirement for the London Semester Abroad program offers St. Thomas students the chance to see how their work in the community can benefit others. And they are not alone. “Many of our students work alongside people from all over the world who also are involved with service in London,” Gorski reports. “Our students serve as ambassadors of our university, and of the philosophy of service.”

Just as important to the community is that this modeling behavior encourages others in the community to get involved. “Service and volunteering are still somewhat new concepts in London,” Gorski said. “Our students have the opportunity to champion our ideals – that we serve because the world calls upon us to give back.”

Beyond England, St. Thomas students have completed the Business Learning Through Service course in more than 20 countries around the world. With a focus on educating highly principled leaders in the global business community, it makes sense for the Opus College of Business to emphasize service to others, no matter where that community might be.

“This was one thing we could do each week to bless the community we live in,” Gay said. “We are very appreciative of the experience. It was important that we give back to London while we were there.”

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