For Study Away, Credit Upon Return

Under new curriculum, Susquehanna U. says students must go away. But it's the course they take when they come back that's required.
February 26, 2009

Starting with this fall's incoming freshmen, Susquehanna University, in Pennsylvania, will require all students to complete a study away experience either domestically or internationally – often not for credit in itself, but as a prerequisite for required credit-bearing coursework back on campus.

“Our requirement’s not that you study-off-campus,” said Scott Manning, director of cross-cultural and off-campus programs and an associate professor of French and Italian. “Our requirement is you have a course back on campus with a faculty member where you reflect back on your cross-cultural experience.”

In other words, “The credit is for academic experience, not just experience,” Manning said.

“I think it’s new, and I think it’s smart.”

Susquehanna is billing GO (Global Opportunities) as “go short, go long, go your own way.” Students can participate in a short-term program led by Susquehanna faculty or staff; current options include SU SPLASH (Students Promoting Leadership and Awareness through Service with the Homeless), in Washington, and SU PLUS (Philippines: Learning, Understanding, Service). Under the new requirement, the experiences must last at least two weeks. Eight new short-term programs are under development at Susquehanna.

Going long, students can enroll in semester-long study abroad (in this case, the academic credits they earn while overseas would transfer to Susquehanna, but not as a substitute for the required reflective seminar upon return).

Or, students can propose their own experience, which must be pre-approved by a faculty committee. It could be an internship, including for pay. It could be service in a cross-cultural setting. The experience itself wouldn’t even need to be academic – it could be a church-sponsored service trip, for example.

All students, however, must take the required two-credit reflective seminar at Susquehanna upon return (a typical Susquehanna course is four credits).

“Tourism is relatively straight-forward. You go back and maybe it’s affected you and maybe it hasn’t,” said David S. Richard, speaker of the faculty and a professor of biology who co-leads an academic program called Focus Australia, in which credit is attached to classes before and after a three-week study tour, but not the tour itself. “What many students fail to do in traditional programs is reflect on what they’ve done.”

Some of the reflective seminars will be embedded with faculty-led courses, such is already the case with Focus Australia, in which students write collaborative group papers of 20 to 25 pages, often on comparative topics, and individually complete reflective evaluations (typically of about 15 pages) in the semester after they return. The cross-cultural seminars, however, will vary in content, with some bringing together students who participated in a wide range of study away experiences. Manning has plans for a course in intercultural film; in 2007 he piloted a reflective course for which readings included Milton Bennett’s “Towards Ethnorelativism: A Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity” and Montaigne’s “Of Cannibals.” The provost, Linda McMillin, a medieval historian, plans to offer a reflective course that will double as a history elective.

“We really want to be able to do this as an institution. But we also recognize that if we’re going to require it of everybody it’s got to have a lot of flavors; it’s got to have a lot of flexibility,” McMillin said.

The new cross-cultural requirement emerged out of a 2003 strategic planning process and the development of a new central curriculum. “We have a set of requirements that would look very familiar to almost any liberal arts college,” McMillin said. “But one area where we really decided to take some risks on was this whole area called ‘Connections.’ What we wanted to do was really think about how do you create a set of competencies … that would allow students to be able to operate in a cross-cultural environment, in a place that’s outside of their comfort zone?” In addition to the cross-cultural requirement, the required curriculum includes two courses on matters related to diversity.

Manning said about 90 percent of the faculty voted for the new cross-cultural requirement in 2007, with most objections centering on costs – both to the institution, which charges study abroad students Susquehanna tuition and makes financial aid portable, and for students. Manning pointed out that the program was designed to be as flexible as possible in part to accommodate students of different means. “We needed this to be financially accessible to students," he said, pointing out that a Susquehanna-sponsored service trip to New Orleans is much less expensive, for instance, than Focus Australia. McMillin also said they’ll be structuring the cost of short-term study away in order to create a pool of need-based aid for students.

McMillin pointed out that on the National Survey of Student Engagement, 70 percent of Susquehanna freshmen indicate an interest in having an off-campus experience, and only 40 percent ever do.

“How do you clear out the obstacles and how do you make that happen for students, once again making sure that you give people lots of flexibility and acknowledging that while semester-long study is fabulous, it’s not going to be what everybody can do?" McMillin asked.

Susquehanna's plans to rapidly ramp up the scale of its study away enterprise -- from 40 percent to 100 -- have fueled some concern. “I’m obviously a big advocate of people having a cross-cultural experience. My concern is we are making a big jump and the logistics are going to be challenging,” said Jeffrey K. Mann, an associate professor of religion who leads the short-term study abroad program in the Philippines. “Now to require every student to do this, that’s a lot of administrative work, staffing post-reflection classes. ...” said Mann (who added, also, “The concern is always that qualified people are teaching courses such as these”).

“It is going to be a challenge to manage effectively but I’m optimistic we will be able to do it, lest I be accused of being naysayer,” said Mann. He noted, too, that an increase in the foreign language requirement from two semesters to three will nicely complement the new cross-cultural requirement.

In terms of long-term sustainability, faculty who teach short-term study away programs will have that count toward their teaching load, as opposed to it being an extra, McMillin, the provost said. She estimated that due to retirements and the growth of the institution from 1,300 to 2,000 students, about half of Susquehanna’s professors have been hired in the last five years. “This has been part of the conversation in recruiting new faculty and people are very excited," she said.

Richard, the biology professor and Focus Australia co-leader who counts himself as an extremely enthusiastic proponent of the new cross-cultural requirement, hopes the excitement lasts. “These programs take an enormous amount of work; we run ours without the use of an outside agency,” he said. “I think this is one thing that puts some faculty off in terms of their enthusiasm.”

“This is the sort of initiative that thrives on the enthusiasm and drive of those people who are particularly interested; if I were to have a concern for the future about the long-term sustainability of this, it is whether or not we could maintain that level of enthusiasm on the part of faculty.”


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