Think back to packing the car for that first semester, freshman year -- the uncertainty, the anxiety about how to present oneself to a new world. How many framed pictures of proms and graduations and boyfriends and girlfriends are too many, and how few are too few?
Now imagine transferring the components of that same childhood room into one monster suitcase -- or, more likely perhaps, a sturdy new backpack -- for freshman fall abroad.
An increasing number of colleges are offering semester- or year-long study abroad programs specifically for freshmen, billed as opportunities for students to start their college careers at Florida State, New York or Syracuse Universities -- overseas.
Only a handful of institutions offer the option, but with internationalization the buzz word on (and off) campuses these days, there seems to be growing interest in the model from the long-established leaders in study abroad and relative newcomers to the field alike. Syracuse announced a new "Discovery Florence" first-semester, liberal arts-oriented study abroad program for freshmen last week, and the University of Mississippi is offering freshmen high-achievers the option to spend their whole first year at the University of Edinburgh starting in 2008. About 200 NYU students start their degrees in London, Paris and Florence: The programs originally were intended to ease the transition for international students (albeit, as the student newspaper reports, with mixed results), but they're now open to American students as well.
Florida State even offers in-state tuition rates as a carrot to attract talented out-of-staters to attend its freshman year abroad programs in Florence, London, Panama City and Valencia. Participating freshmen who return to Tallahassee for sophomore year pay in-state tuition rates -- representing a total savings of up to $55,000 -- for the remainder of their undergraduate degree programs.
Meanwhile, the University of New Haven just sent its first cohort of first semester freshman to London's Roehampton University for the fall, and Plymouth State University started sending freshmen to Ireland in 2004, only two years after starting a formal study abroad program. The "First Year Study Abroad Experience," an Arcadia University program established in 2003, features semester-long options in London, Limerick or Stirling, Scotland.
"The rationale that I have for it is, number one, it attracts a different kind of student. The student is definitely independent, adventurous. They want to do something different than what everyone else is doing, they definitely want to study abroad, so you end up getting a student that you might not normally get," says Dennis Nostrand, vice president for enrollment management at the University of New Haven. Nostrand, who came to New Haven from Arcadia, says that, in his experience, students who actively show an interest in a college's freshman study abroad programs are significantly more likely to come to the college than students who do not, regardless of whether they end up studying abroad at the start.
Second, Nostrand says in reference to low study abroad participation rates -- the study abroad world is focused on quintupling participation to one million within a decade -- "Maybe what's really keeping [students] from studying abroad is going to college. They get involved in a routine, they get involved in athletics, they get a boyfriend or girlfriend, they get in clubs and organizations or, worst of all, they put it off for so long that they can't fit it into their curriculum."
'They're Still 18-Year-Olds'
In addition to serving a strategic purpose for colleges looking to improve the quality of their applicant pool and also step up their study abroad credentials, proponents say the freshman year abroad programs instill a lifelong appetite for intercultural experiences (and set the stage for students to study abroad a second time later in their college careers), and provide immediate exposure to diverse people and ideas (a primary impetus at relatively homogenous Plymouth State in New Hampshire, for instance, as an official there explains). Furthermore, supporters say, they offer greater context to the traditional college experience upon return, and provide a unique opportunity for mature, successful students who come to college in many cases with a substantial number of transferable credits already completed.
Yet, Mary Stuart Hunter, director of the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition at the University of South Carolina, says that while the freshman first semester or year abroad "is an intriguing idea," it's also a challenging one.
"The transition issues that first-year students have are pretty significant and one of the things that's most important in helping students to transition into their first year on campus is developing a sense of community," says Hunter. "I just think about all the things that many campuses attempt to do to help first-year students succeed, and I think it would be really challenging to be as effective when they're not even on campus."
And, from the student's perspective, Hunter adds, "I would think it would be fairly challenging for a student to begin abroad and then come back their second year. It'd be almost like having a first-year experience all over again."
The various programs offer varying levels of support to students abroad, and even their biggest proponents point out that freshman year or freshman first semester abroad is only for a particular type of student. "You get surprised looks from parents and some students….'First year, first semester – really?'" says Debra Regan, senior associate director of the Office of International Programs at Plymouth State. "But we find it's a pretty self-selecting group. Students know immediately: This is for me or this is not for me."
Only 3.1 percent of American students studying abroad in 2004-5 -- the last year for which the Institute of International Education's Open Doors data are available -- were freshmen, a proportion that's fluctuated between a low of 2 percent and high of 3.5 percent since 1993-94. Other than NYU, which still attracts a lot of international students to its first-year programs in Europe, even the most established of the freshman year abroad programs tend to have only a few dozen freshmen abroad at a time -- 57 this fall across the three Arcadia locations, 37 total at the 12-month programs offered at four Florida State international centers.
The programs vary dramatically in structure. Many, if not most, are housed at university-owned centers, which offer university courses, taught by university faculty. Others, like the University of New Haven's and Plymouth State's, feature direct enrollment in foreign institutions, coordinated through an outside provider (in both cases, the Center for International Studies). Plymouth specifically offers a hybrid program: Students take two courses with a Plymouth State professor, and take the balance of their credits at the University of Limerick. The new Syracuse program will have homestays, but in most other cases, freshmen live in apartments or residence halls.
Students are generally screened for admission to the freshmen abroad program: At Arcadia, for instance, qualified students are invited to apply only after meeting a certain cut-off in terms of high school grade point average, class rank, standardized test scores, and indicators of international experience/interest. Students are only accepted to the study abroad program after phone or in-person interviews.
Syracuse is also planning a selective application and interview process for its brand-new freshman first semester abroad program, piloting next fall with a target enrollment of 20 students.
"We really want to get a feeling for the sophistication of the student," says Daeya Malboeuf, associate director of marketing and communications for Syracuse University Abroad.
Although, Malboeuf adds, "Even if they are more sophisticated and mature, even if they have traveled before, they're still 18-year-olds and we know that. There's going to be a lot of support for them too -- student services and advisers who are really going to watch over this group carefully."
Coming Back and Going
The support takes various forms: In addition to studying Italian and European history and culture in Florence, Syracuse students will also be required to take a nutrition class and "The First-Year Forum," basically an extended, credit-bearing orientation course. In addition to support structures already in place at university centers abroad, a number of institutions, including Arcadia, invite freshmen to first-year orientation on the main campus -- where they can forge relationships with an academic adviser and their classmates -- before they board the plane.
Upon return, Plymouth State's Regan says, "They seem to adjust. The students that go to Ireland have already navigated a different culture, so to come back and navigate this one, they've got the tools to do that."
Sending freshmen abroad before they bond with peers and find their niche on campus may seem counter-intuitive, given the attention generally placed on making sure they feel comfortable and can succeed on campus. The freshmen year abroad programs are largely geared toward humanities and social science majors -- triggering the obvious worry that students might self-identify as such before discovering a passion for science or engineering during an introductory course back on campus (given the sequential nature of science curriculums, discovering that passion a year later could potentially be too late).
And of course, while the freshman study abroad program may be an effective recruiting tool for attracting particularly talented students, that doesn't necessarily mean that students will find the college itself to be the right fit. As the University of New Haven's Nostrand says, "There is that danger that you make them so worldly that they decide that they picked the wrong college."
Yet, program advisers say retention rates among participants generally mirror or exceed those of the general university population (with the caveat that those who start their degrees abroad tend to have stronger academic profiles to begin with).
The students who attended Arcadia's first freshman fall abroad program in 2003, for instance, just graduated at a retention rate of 65 percent, which mirrors the rate for the whole of the university's Glenside, Penn. campus, says Janice A. Finn, assistant dean for international services at Arcadia. The percentage of freshman fall abroad participants who return to the Glenside campus for sophomore year has been trending upwards, increasing from 78 percent for the 2003 group to 89 percent for the fall 2006 cohort.
"One of the downsides of traditional study abroad is that students historically haven't gone until much later in their careers," says Louisa Blenman, director of student affairs and student services for international programs at Florida State.
"As a result of that, they bring their international experience back with them and they come back changed but the campus only benefits from their new insights and wisdom and perspectives for two semesters, usually."
"By doing [freshman year abroad], we're bringing students back to our campus who will be with us for three more years. The idea is that they will be different when they come here, and will approach things with a different perspective and ask different questions in class," Blenman says.
Arcadia's Finn, however, says that while there may be increasing interest in the freshman abroad model, she doubts it will catch on widely because of the extra supports needed for students whose first semester abroad may represent their first extended period away from home....ever.
"Many schools are thinking about it, but I'm not so sure that they would have the infrastructure to build upon," Finn says. "You can't just send students overseas....All the same issues that you have to think about when sending students abroad, A-Z, you have all those, but you also have to think about what are the developmental issues when you have freshmen overseas?"
"It depends really on the institution and the student. Just as it's not right for every student, it's also not good for every school," says Peggy Blumenthal, who, as executive vice president of the Institute of International Education also speaks from the perspective of someone who spent her freshman spring overseas.
"For schools that can provide a very strong preparation while they're abroad, provide support while they're abroad and can reintegrate them when they're back, I think it's a very fruitful avenue for expanding the study abroad definition and also bringing back a whole group of students who are really excited about study abroad."
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