Third Place, Sense of Place: Photo by Evan Steeves, Kylemore Abbey, Ireland. National University of Ireland, Galway Irish Language Summer Course 2014

Tommie Traditions: Studying Abroad

There are countless ways students at St. Thomas find out about studying abroad. Whether discussing a fellow student's experience over a meal at Scooters, or as a prospective student visiting campus, conversations about study abroad pop up all over.

St. Thomas’ strategic plan also articulated a goal of emphasizing globalization, which should help further a well-established tradition of valuing international education at the university. Part of the strategic plan's emphasis will undoubtedly be the continuation of students going abroad, a benchmark aspect of a St. Thomas educational experience and overall view of its role in preparing global citizens. It’s an element that is as healthy as it has ever been, consistently placing the school near the top of national rankings for percentages of student participation.

St. Thomas did not always have such a strong emphasis on study abroad; like many characteristics of the university, it has evolved over time. Several key figures were seminal in that evolution, helping turn the idea of studying abroad from something only for the "wealthy few" and foreign language speakers to something everyone should have the chance to take part in.

Honorable Mention, Sense of Place: Photo by Nadine Thibault, London. London Business Semester, Fall 2013. “Drury Lane.”

Photo by Nadine Thibault, London. London Business Semester, Fall 2013. “Drury Lane.”

One here, one there

World War II was tragic on many levels, but part of its legacy was a renewed commitment to peace around the globe. To prevent such conflicts from happening again, citizens worldwide believed they would benefit from better knowing and understanding one another. Studying abroad was intrinsically tied to this pursuit. It was to this end that, in 1946, President Harry Truman signed into law the Fulbright Program, the first major support structure by the U.S. government of scholarship abroad.

Paul Koutny, an Austrian who survived a Nazi prison camp, received a Fulbright scholarship to study in America in 1949. He spent that year at St. Thomas, an experience so profound he dedicated his life to creating similar opportunities for Americans all over the world: In 1951 he co-founded what is now the Institute for the International Education of Students (IES), an organization that has helped nearly 90,000 students study abroad. St. Thomas graduates from the Class of 1965 who participated in the IES Vienna program in 1963-1964 established a scholarship that benefits students who study abroad today.

Despite such roots, St. Thomas students’ own experiences with study abroad post-World War II were far from expansive. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, most studying abroad was facilitated on an exchange basis by individual faculty, with a majority based around the study of foreign languages. No formal programs at St. Thomas coordinated students going abroad.

Foreign Studies Center

German professor Dr. Paul Schons was an active faculty member in these kinds of exchange. In 1973 he formally began investigating ways to open up more opportunities abroad for St. Thomas students. That investigation led to the creation of the Foreign Studies Center (FSC) in 1974 (PDF), which was housed at that point in the Foreign Languages Department. From then on Schons dedicated increasing time to advancing the agenda of the FSC; raising the number of students studying abroad to 30 by 1980 was one of his initial goals.

That goal soon changed to 100, and in 1980-81, 93 students studied abroad, 45 of them over the January Interim period. Schons advanced several other objectives for the FSC’s, including establishing relationships with programs other universities already were offering abroad, many of which continue to this day. Schons also led St. Thomas to join the Upper Midwest Association for International Education (UMAIE), which helped expand enrollment over January as more students took advantage of a growing menu of options for short-term courses. Throughout this period St. Thomas maintained a policy of providing financial aid for students gone for at least one semester, a rare commitment among large universities that still continues.

Honorable Mention, Sense of Place: Photo by Natalie Mathias, Atacama Desert, Chile. CIEE Liberal Arts-Santiago, Chile.

Photo by Natalie Mathias, Atacama Desert, Chile. CIEE Liberal Arts-Santiago, Chile.

A big step forward

After the FSC saw growth throughout the 1970s, Schons led an investigation in 1981 at the behest of St. Thomas’ new dean, John Nemo, on what the school might do to expand its international efforts (PDF). In his report, Schons articulated why he felt studying abroad was so valuable:

“I believe the overall purpose of the College of St. Thomas study abroad programs ought to be the provision of a variety of means to awaken students to the reality of other peoples, lifestyles and social value structures. Exposure to other languages is and should continue to be a significant part of the education gained in a foreign study program. It is most likely that the United States will continue to be involved increasingly economically, politically and socially with various other cultures around the world. It strikes me as extremely important to provide this means to elevate our students above xenophobic reactions to other peoples.”

Included in his report were 40 recommendations, ranging from requesting that administrators stress the importance of studying abroad in meetings, to raises of $500 to faculty already working with programs abroad. The National Association of Foreign Student Advisors acted as an outside consultant to St. Thomas soon after Schons' report, and in 1983 his leadership helped secure the creation of the school's International Education Center (IEC). Dr. Sarah Stevenson was hired as its director (PDF), signaling the university’s first dedication of a full-time professional to international education.

Stevenson and a secretary, Ruth Hennessey, worked in small house on Grand Avenue.

“It was out there on the edge of campus and I thought, ‘We’re out here on the edge of nowhere,’” said Stevenson, who led international education at Gustavus Adolphus College before arriving at St. Thomas. “The dean assured me that every student would come right by us because it was on the way from campus to Davanni's.”

Arguably the biggest challenge early on, Stevenson said, was to convince faculty and students studying abroad was a good idea.

“Faculty felt (study abroad) was for the wealthy few and weren’t terribly supportive of the idea. We had to do a lot of public relations,” she said. “There were a lot of studies coming out and we were trying to promote the concept on a national basis that this was important for our country, for political, economic, cultural reasons. We needed a population that was better trained, better informed about the world.”

Throughout the 1980s St. Thomas students became more involved in co-sponsored programs, including with professional third-party groups that facilitated enrollment in foreign universities. In 1986 the IEC also began to develop and administer St. Thomas’ own short-term programs, an appeal that grew for those who didn’t want to study abroad for a full semester.

“I do think the curriculum had a lot to do with (the growing popularity of J-Term courses abroad at St. Thomas.) Our students didn't have as many electives as other traditional liberal arts schools,” Stevenson said. “Our students are very focused on graduating on time … January (programs provided) an easy way to get an international experience that you knew you could count toward your graduation requirements.”

Stevenson said a growing reputation of positive experiences helped too.

“Also, in the early years (the J-Term courses) weren’t as academically challenging. Not that they didn’t learn … but it wasn’t as much the traditional exam, papers,” she added. “As the January Term courses changed on campus, the J-Term courses changed overseas as well. By the time they became more traditional courses … the tradition was well enough established that it didn’t scare students away.”

Stevenson herself took advantage of an opportunity abroad in 1990, spending a year in Japan. When she returned, much like Schons before her, she advocated for yet another expansion of St. Thomas’ international efforts.

Second Place, Tommies Abroad: Photo by Lauren Buchholz, Wadi Rum, Jordan. “Camel Games.”

Photo by Lauren Buchholz, Wadi Rum, Jordan. “Camel Games.”

A changing culture

Slow but steady growth continued throughout the early 1990s; it was later in the decade that things took a major jump forward at St. Thomas. Stevenson’s advocacy helped lead to the creation of a task force that, in 1995, implemented a Five Year Internationalization Plan. Well beyond the scope of just study abroad, this plan oversaw a vast expansion of international education offerings and programs, and addressed the overall attitude on campus toward international learning. Included was the addition of a coordinator for international admissions, an ELS Languages Services program and the creation of an international programs matrix that centralized St. Thomas’ efforts.

More than anything, the plan signaled a cultural shift throughout the university.

“That period is the real springboard,” said Sarah Spencer, St. Thomas’ current director of Study Abroad, International Education. “You had not just study abroad, but a huge number of internationally focused things going on.”

Included in that five-year growth was the creation in 1995 of the first semester abroad course by St. Thomas, the London Business Semester, which soon was followed by Don Briel founding the Catholic Studies program in Rome in 1998. Both programs continue today.

The turn of the century also saw the beginning of a dramatic uptick in St. Thomas faculty-led J-Term courses.

“As more faculty members became involved themselves, that did change their attitudes about the value of studying abroad,” Stevenson said.

Third Place, Tommies Abroad: Photo by Lisa Northenscold, Rome. Catholic Studies Fall 2013. “Shadows of Rome.”

Photo by Lisa Northenscold, Rome. Catholic Studies, Fall 2013. “Shadows of Rome.”

Upward and outward

The decade-plus since then has seen a continued understanding of that value, reflected in the hundreds - sometimes more than 1,000 - St. Thomas students who go abroad each year. That tradition continues building through new, improved experiences: from the guarantee to incoming students they will have an opportunity to study abroad no matter their major, to helping them articulate the value of their time abroad in personal and career development.

“To take that foundation we had and really help it grow, it has been very exciting,” Stevenson said. “You certainly knew you were doing something wonderful for students’ education. That was the best part of it.”

Similar to the five-year internationalization plan of 20 years ago, St. Thomas’ new strategic plan has formed a vision of increasing the university’s global engagement. It is difficult now to forecast the many opportunities that may come out of this renewed focus and set of goals, but if the history of study abroad offers any clues, it is this: “You need all of these factors of our university in play for global engagement to work and stick,” Spencer said. “We had Sarah Stevenson; dedicated leadership; a great plan; administrative support of that plan under (then-president) Father (Dennis) Dease; and faculty, staff and students across campus working together. It truly took the community to create this progress, and we continue to experience it first hand today.”