All the Freshmen in Paris

Centenary College of Louisiana plans to send all its 2014 fall freshmen to France in the first days of class. Is this the future of study abroad or PR?

October 10, 2013
Centenary College of Louisiana students in Paris. The college already does study abroad, but next year it plans to send its whole freshman class.

Centenary College of Louisiana plans to send its entire freshman class to Paris next year, an unusual and perhaps first-of-its-kind venture abroad for a whole group of young college students.

The 661-student college in Shreveport expects 150 first-year students will travel to Paris for about 8 to 10 days, guided by college faculty.

“We have a longstanding commitment dating back 30 years to international study,” Centenary President David Rowe said. “We’ve recently tried to, I guess, put our money where our mouth is and help emphasize that for our students.”

Money for the trip will come out of tuition, which the university plans to increase for incoming students to pay for a larger curricular overhaul. The redesigned schedule will allow students to earn 40 hours of credit a year, up from about 30. Instead of two single-part 15--credit-hour semesters, the spring and fall semesters will now be divided into two parts: a short four-hour course by itself and then a 16-hour semester.

The Parisian plan prompted skepticism from one study abroad expert.

Missy Gluckmann is co-founder of Better Abroad, a group urging changes to study abroad programs to make them more meaningful. She said well-intentioned programs designed to create a cultural connection can fail or have unintended consequences. “It looks like a beautiful PR blitz and it looks like it will be a real selling point for their admissions office,” she said.

Gluckmann worries students will not be well-versed in French language or culture and may be unable to connect with French people, and that they could end up reinforcing negative stereotypes of Americans. If not properly executed, the plan could be “horrifically disastrous for our entire field,” she said.

Rowe said he understands skepticism but said the program is an extension of Centenary’s existing work.

“Just because it’s attractive doesn’t mean it’s not authentic to the institution,” he said.

The college already requires every student to do short courses known as modules, including many that involved studying abroad.

Before they go to Paris next year, freshmen will have the opportunity but not be required to take an immersive French course over the summer, before the start of the fall semester. They will also have a few days in class on campus before they head to France.

He said Paris, like London, is a “fairly safe step” for Americans.

“I think we shouldn’t overplay the cultural differences between Paris and Shreveport – it’s a big metropolitan city with lots of institutional resources,” Rowe said, noting he had been lost in Paris and gotten by with English.

Moreover, he said, the goal of the program is not to engage or understand Paris but to educate Centenary students in another setting.

“The focus of the study is not Paris, Paris is the venue of the study,” Rowe said. “So we’re chemists and political scientists and artists and historians teaching their fields to our students but accessing the rich institutional tapestry of Paris to do so, and so it’s sort of like moving the students into the laboratory as oppose to trying replicate it for the students on campus.”

But because of the high-intensity experience there, Rowe hopes students will be likelier to stay at Centenary and do well.

This year’s freshman class is 128 students, down from a three-year average of 175 freshmen and a five-year average of 199. The college moved from Division I to Division III in 2009 and has had to consolidate and eliminate academic programs.

Rowe said the target freshman enrollment for next year is 150, so the institution is not planning for an unusually large class to make the Paris trip possible. “We’re not trying to shoot out the lights on recruitment with this,” he said.

Some of the details haven’t been worked out, like precise details of where students will stay or what classes will be offered, but Rowe said the plan is in line with the college’s existing focus.

Rowe said the whole-class-is-going approach is, to his knowledge, not happening anywhere else.

Gluckmann worries there’s a reason for that, namely that rowdy students new to college won’t be able to control themselves and could get in trouble in France.

“We never think about the host country,” she said.

Rowe said because the trip is happening when students first arrive on campus and are more attentive to rules, “I think that’s going to provide some additional social and normative reinforcement for conduct on the trip,” he said.

The host country doesn’t seem too worried about the young Americans’ behavior.

Philippe Aldon, deputy counsel attaché at the French consulate in New Orleans, works with colleges to create partnerships between the United States and France. He said he was officially notified about Centenary’s plans last week and wants to sit down and find out more details. He thinks students will do well in his country.

“I think it will be, for them, such a great experience to be in Paris, to visit Paris as freshmen of a university – even if it’s going to be fun, it’s an academic process, it’s a way to link them with the open world,” Aldon said.

Aldon notes next year is the 100th anniversary – the centenary – of the beginning of World War I. He hopes the program takes advantage of that.

The college is still working out some financing and program details, Rowe said.

First-year trips abroad may be growing more common in general, said Dallin George Young, an assistant director at the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition and University 101 Programs at the University of South Carolina.

“My gut feeling and my observation is that a lot of these high-impact practices and things like study abroad are happening more frequently and earlier in the undergraduate curriculum,” he said. Young said a description of the Centenary plan led him to question the value of it as a first-year experience, though some details are not yet finalized or available.

Rowe said that whatever happens, the trip will be a learning experience for the institution.

“We’re a learning institution too and we’re interested to see what works and what doesn’t and make it an iterative process we can improve on year to year,” he said.


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