Growing up in Alexandria, Minn., Vassilena Ouzounova had no idea she'd one day be hopping between Japan and Ireland in order to further her college education. But the international studies and Japanese major, who will graduate this spring, knew a study abroad experience in what has truly become a global classroom was almost a necessity for her.
"I knew I wanted to pursue a career involving international relations, and in order to improve my Japanese and better understand Japanese culture, I felt I had to study abroad," says Ouzounova, who emigrated to the U.S. from Bulgaria with her parents when she was 11 and spent a January Term in Ireland and England for a theater class. "Also, I simply wanted to expand my horizons and experience living in a place completely different from what I was used to."
Whether aimed at understanding international relations, deciphering the global economy, learning about social justice on the front lines of a Third World country or simply getting outside of the campus' comfort zone, study abroad programs at St. Thomas are more popular than ever with students, and the university is working hard to keep up with the rising demand.
"I see this as becoming a necessity of sorts for students during their college experience and education," says business professor Dr. Phil Anderson, who has led study abroad programs in London and Ireland since the mid-1990s. "For everyone, but particularly business students, the world is shrinking. It is no longer just large, global companies whose success depends on understanding international cultures and business practices and potential political and social pressures. Studying these issues on campus is important, but clearly not the same as experiencing it directly."
Anderson isn't alone in his beliefs. In the 2005 Open Doors survey sponsored by the Institute for International Education, St. Thomas ranked first among doctoral/research institutions with an estimated 62 percent of St. Thomas undergraduate students studying abroad in 2003-04, topping Duke, Georgetown, Stanford, Notre Dame and numerous other big-name schools.
New stats from the Open Doors Report on International Education released in November 2006 indicate St. Thomas now ranks third behind Yeshiva University and University of Denver with 66.4 percent of participants studying abroad. This ranks above others in the top 10: Wake Forest, Georgetown, Notre Dame, Pepperdine, American, Duke and Dartmouth.
More than 72 percent of freshmen attending St. Thomas beginning in 2004-05 said they planned on studying abroad during college, according to results of the national survey of student engagement.
"I believe that study abroad and other ways of connecting with diverse cultures are absolutely essential in today's world," Father Dennis Dease, president of St. Thomas, said in his 2006 Academic Convocation Address last fall. "Unfortunately, we live a very insular and insulated life in this country, even to the point of being provincial. We can no longer afford this ignorance. Higher education in the United States - and especially Catholic higher education - needs to do a better job of awakening students to world cultures, economics and politics. We cannot live in a bubble."
Time to think global
With that in mind, St. Thomas has gone as far as to seriously explore making a study abroad experience mandatory for all students. The university's Core Curriculum Task Force weighed the idea before ultimately stopping short of making study abroad a requirement for the 2007-08 school year.
"An important avenue to global education is study abroad courses," the task force stated in its July 2006 report. "Ideally, the task force would like to see all students be able to study abroad. This is not feasible at present, both for financial and logistic reasons."
The committee did recommend several measures for increasing study abroad opportunities for students, from making more financial aid available (currently, most regular financial aid packages also apply to study abroad programs, with some students also eligible to appeal for additional funding) to creating more courses to choose from to increasing St. Thomas faculty and staff participation in the programs.
"We want it to be integrated psychologically so that study abroad isn't seen as something separate, but rather part and parcel of the university's academic experience," said Dr. Sarah Stevenson, who was hired in 1983 to found St. Thomas' International Education Center and is director of International Programs. "I'd love to see study abroad tied into all majors and represented not as separate from but rather as an essential part of the St. Thomas experience."
Two decades of growth
When Stevenson opened the center, the only St. Thomas students who had studied abroad went on programs administered by members of the Foreign Language Department. The first study abroad experience for which the International Education Center has records began in 1974-1975, with two students participating. In Stevenson's first year, 64 students studied abroad on semester programs and 111 on January courses through the newly established center. The following year, the number jumped to 115 on semester programs and 161 on January programs, and it has since increased steadily almost every year.
In 2005-2006, 825 St. Thomas students studied off-campus in semester and short-term programs on six continents with the most popular destinations being England, Italy and Spain. Sponsored programs included everything from Intro to Field Research in Costa Rica to Visual Communication in Europe to Culture and Communication in post-apartheid South Africa.
St. Thomas also co-sponsors numerous programs with other colleges and universities around the globe. Students choosing these programs can select from more than 90 integrated programs in 30 countries. Semester and yearlong programs deepen the intercultural experience for students and allow them to study such subjects as economic development in Uganda, business in China or geography in New Zealand.
"Studying abroad was the best thing I've done since I came to college," said Christopher Flynn '07, a biochemistry major who will graduate this spring. Flynn spent spring semester of 2006 studying at Lancaster University in England. "I hardly remember my first two years of college, but the semester abroad changed my understanding of the world. I learned in a different education system, took classes I couldn't have taken at UST, met people from all over the world, traveled through much of Europe and did it all essentially independently."
Independence is one of the many skills students gain when they venture into longer term study abroad programs. As a student in a foreign university or when fully immersed in a second language, students experience in a concrete way what it means to be out of their comfort zone. Their preconceptions are tested, their world views are called into question, and they often return to the United States with a new ability to reflect on themselves and a finer appreciation of what difference really means.
The center also holds several "first step" sessions each month for interested students, helping walk them through the process of applying to study abroad. The IEC's Web site offers detailed information on the different programs, costs and frequently asked questions.
A major consideration for any student wanting to study abroad is cost, though most of the programs are similar in cost to attending St. Thomas, with travel being the extra expense, according to Stevenson. Financial aid packages follow students overseas on approved semester and year-long programs. Loans are available for short-term programs. A growing number of scholarships from alumni who had studied abroad are available.
Depending on destination, J-Terms abroad range from $4,900 to $7,000, including tuition and travel. A typical 2006-07 semester at UST runs around $16,110 (tuition and average room and board) compared to a study abroad semester in Rome, Italy, for $17,105, including airfare.
Faculty get involved
In the past decade, the most popular study abroad programs have been the short-term experiences, lasting anywhere from one to six weeks and taking place in January, summer term or spring break (which the International Education Center refers to as "spring embedded"). Along with sponsoring its own faculty-directed undergraduate and graduate programs such as Spanish Language through Cultural Engagement in Mexico and Business Law and Ethics in the European Union, St. Thomas also co-sponsors more than 90 programs in more than 30 countries with other colleges around the country.
With semester or yearlong programs, St. Thomas continues to offer the popular London Business Semester. Anderson was the first director of the London Business Semester in 1995, teaching an Introduction to Management course and a Business Ethics course. In 1997 he developed the first summer study abroad program that involved business, and he has been one of the driving forces when it comes to faculty involvement with international education. Anderson lived and taught in Ireland for four years and has traveled to Ireland and England more than 40 times each over the past 15 years.
Other semester programs include the Catholic Studies Semester in Rome and the Glasgow English Semester.
"I think what has really fired all of this growth is the increasing interest of faculty to create and lead these kinds of courses," said Ann Hubbard, co-director of study abroad. "And as that interest among faculty has grown, there are more opportunities and more students going."
Journalism professor Dr. Kris Bunton debated for years whether or not to put together a study abroad course. Now, after taking the plunge with Gender, Race and Media: London during January 2003, she's become a huge fan of the experience.
"I was intimidated," she said. "I wanted to do a study abroad course for a long time, but I was chicken and was looking for the right partner in our department, somebody who shared my vision for the course, the work and the travel style. And the partnership that I developed with (fellow journalism professor) Wendy Wyatt has been really successful."
Bunton and Wyatt have taught their J-Term course for three years now, and Bunton said it's an "exciting, interesting, unusual way" to teach the course.
"It is so unlike anything you can do in a classroom," she added. "I mean, the city of London is really a text for us. We ride public transportation; we read the city and the cultural messages it is presenting. And it's something where you really have to master the teachable moment. You might be riding the Tube, sitting with two or three of your students, and you might pass by an ad on a kiosk that relates to what you were reading in class three days ago."
Future trends: Beyond Europe
With professors such as Anderson and Bunton constantly tweaking and creating new programs and finding new locations, St. Thomas hopes to continue expanding its study abroad options.
"On the semester side of things, we've seen solid development in the past decade with things like internships and field study," Hubbard said. "And we're seeing more and more things happening outside of Europe."
Potential 2008-2009 locations for study abroad programs include Peru, Mali and India. More departments and graduate programs also are considering developing courses that can be taught abroad, Stevenson said.
"Programs also are being developed for very specific audiences of students, such as the recently piloted J-Term courses for first-year students," said Sarah E. Spencer, co-director of study abroad.
Hubbard says while some majors are still underrepresented in study abroad, the International Education Center is working on partnering with faculty and departments to identify St. Thomas -sponsored or co-sponsored programs that would work well with a specific major in mind.
"And that's a reason to develop advising materials for, say, political science majors or sociology majors and say, 'Here are programs that the department finds are really good curricular matches for you," Hubbard said.
Other future study abroad trends include plans for St. Thomas' Executive MBA program and the School of Law to create and offer programs, along with asking the admissions department to continue promoting study abroad heavily with prospective undergraduate students.
"When looking at prospective colleges, high school students are a lot more interested in study abroad options than a decade ago," Hubbard said.
Once in a lifetime opportunity
Senior Allison Johnson, a justice and peace studies major and Spanish minor on track to graduate in May 2007, was one of those younger students focused on studying abroad as soon as possible in college. She spent part of her sophomore year in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua in a program called Sustainable Development and Social Change co-sponsored by St. Thomas and Augsburg.
"I studied abroad a year and a half ago, but not a day goes by where I don't think of something from my time there - a neighbor, a smell, a powerful speaker, a story," Johnson said. "My semester was about so much more than just classes and homework. I don't think there's a better time in one's life to live abroad and experience another culture than while in college."
Freelance writer and author John Nemo '97 can be found online at www.JohnNemoBooks.com