Educators Discuss Collaboration Between Student Affairs and Study Abroad Staff to Impact Academics, Health and Safety

Staff members of GSE&IS's Center for Global Education shared experiences that led to their work in study abroad.

An interdisciplinary approach to study abroad programs and student outcomes was explored in the recent publication of “Study Abroad as a Collaborative Endeavor,” which appeared in the Jan.-Feb. 2012 issue of About Campus. The article was co-authored by Gary Rhodes, director of the Center for Global Education (CGE) at the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies (GSE&IS); Lisa Loberg, doctoral student, educational leadership, GSE&IS, and director of the Study Abroad Office and senior lecturer in French at California Lutheran University; Katie Roller, doctoral student, educational leadership and director of the Office of International Study at Marymount College in Rancho Palos Verdes; and Albert Biscarra, a doctoral student in education specializing in Social Sciences and Comparative Education, and CGE graduate student researcher.

The article focuses on new data showing the impact of study abroad on retention and success in college as well as challenges in the study abroad field, including those impacting student health and safety. The co-authors of the article maintain that such challenges make collaboration between student affairs and study abroad professionals critical.

CGE is involved in the California Community College Student Abroad Outcomes Research Project (CCC SOAR), which is funded through a grant from the International Research and Studies Program of the U.S. Department of Education. CCC SOAR researchers are looking at the impact of study abroad for community college students both in terms of international learning and on retention and success in college.  In addition, researchers at the Center are collecting data from both community colleges and four-year universities across the U.S. to collect data and special program information looking at the impact of study abroad on retention and success. The Center also serves as a national resource for the study abroad field in the areas of health and safety and effective practice, integrated international learning abroad, diversity issues and study abroad, as well as providing resources for research and practice for faculty, staff and students.

According to the article, the long-term benefits of study abroad for students include self-growth, intercultural competence and sensitivity, and a diversified worldview. Rhodes says that the experience of leaving home – and often, the United States – for the first time is transformational for many students, particularly first-generation college students.

“When I first worked as a study abroad program administrator in the Office of Overseas Studies at USC, I saw the significant changes that took place for students – many were different and more mature people when they returned home,” he says. “Study abroad is a highly engaging activity that takes students out of the world they are familiar with and challenges their worldview.  For some students, it may be the first time they have a ‘full-time university experience,’ where they are not also involved in work, supporting their family, or commuting to their university in the U.S. There are generally relationship-building opportunities with faculty, staff, and other students from the U.S. and abroad that they may not find [back home]. It gives students an opportunity to look at themselves, personally and academically from a new perspective, and may [reveal] opportunities that they never thought were open to them.”

Roller’s decision to enter the international education field was influenced by her own study abroad experience in London as an undergraduate English major. Impressed by the example of her resident director while there, she decided to earn her master’s degree in educational administration and enter the field of international education.

“I started thinking about what it would be like to have her job,” says Roller. “I did an informational interview with her to [learn] her likes and dislikes of the job and her career background. I then volunteered to work for her second semester. I fell in love with the idea of working with college students and study abroad.”

In the article, the authors underscored the challenges to international education professionals, including increasing the diversity of participants and preparing students – and themselves – to encounter cultural differences with an open mind.

“Pre-departure management is key,” notes Roller. “Students must understand that differences are normal and the highs and lows of culture shock should be expected. [They] should be encouraged to withhold judgment on cultural practices that may be unfamiliar.”

Loberg says that while all efforts should be made to prepare students for international travel, most of the assimilation occurs when they arrive in-country. She emphasizes that making the most of the experience in regard to academic planning should also be in focus.

“Providing a recommended list of courses that students could take in the semesters or quarters leading up to their study abroad term could be beneficial to provide a stronger foundation,” she says. “I think that language learning has an important role that is overlooked by many US institutions, as it is closely tied to cultural understanding.  Graduation requirements should include higher levels of foreign language proficiency.”

Biscarra, who is supporting CGE’s research on the impact of study abroad programs on students through CCCSOAR, says that institutions would do well to examine the direct effects of international education on retention and graduation rates.

“Study abroad offices producing graduation rate data should account for the range of student characteristics associated with degree attainment,” he says. “It may be that students who study abroad possess more favorable levels of characteristics highly correlated with degree attainment, such as college GPA and socioeconomic status. By better understanding the relationship between study abroad and graduation rates through accounting for these other characteristics, institutions can further enhance their decision making related to student programming and study abroad outcomes.”

Loberg says that the experience of study abroad results in a higher level of focus on academics for students as “They gain a stronger sense of their vocation and begin to think about their place in the world. They see more clearly the purpose that education has in their life and in the attainment of their long-term goals.

“Students who study abroad return to their home campus so much more academically focused,” she says. “Studying abroad truly opens doors for students and helps them see beyond the local. Often they are inspired by a professor or a class they took while abroad and decide to change their major as a result [and] consider graduate programs and potential jobs that could take them abroad again.”

Rhodes says that the rewards of being in the field of international education include “impacting the development and growth… that take place to support individual students and knowing that the changes can help them make an important impact. Students who did not have a clear academic or career path return with more clearly focused ideas not only on their personal future, but also on how they can make a positive impact as they better understand the connections between local and global. This international experience can empower them in new ways that open their eyes to ways they can make a difference in the world.”

Roller, who recalled how she changed her career goals from teaching AP high school English to becoming an international education professional, says that for her the greatest reward of her work is being able to see students through the same transformative experiences she had with “the opportunity to inspire students to satiate their curiosity about the world… being part of a field that deeply understands that ‘The path is not straight.’”

An interview with Rhodes appears in the March-April issue of the National Council of University Research Administrators Magazine, including the history of CGE, which he originally founded at USC in 1998. He was recently quoted in the March 28 global edition of the New York Times/International Herald Tribune discussing the value of online sources that prepare students for several facets of the study abroad experience, including crime and political concerns. CGE was mentioned in The Chronicle of Higher Education in regard to the Center’s research on the impact of study abroad on grade-point averages and retention.