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A group of Wheaton College students smile in Switzerland.

Wheaton College first-year students Clara Cortright, Nelly Bolster, Mieke Buterbaugh, Jasmin Treassy and Sylvia Lamphere at their WheaGo study abroad location in Lugano, Switzerland. This is the first year Wheaton has created study abroad opportunities for first-semester students.

Wheaton College, Norton, Mass.

First-year students at Wheaton College in Massachusetts don’t have to wait to learn internationally, as Wheaton is joining a growing rank of institutions offering study abroad opportunities for learners in their first academic term.

WheaGo Global is open to select students who are interested in forgoing the traditional first-year experience to study in one of four international locations.

The new program is designed for adventurous students who may not otherwise study abroad and to set them on a path for intercultural exploration early.

A growing trend: Study abroad opportunities for first-year students have expanded over the past 15 years, including at Arcadia University, Middlebury College, Marist College, the University of Maryland, New York University, Florida State University, Northeastern University, Skidmore College, Syracuse University and Wake Forest University, among others.

International Education’s Open Doors Student Profile found first-year students made up 7 percent of undergraduate study abroad participants during the 2020–21 academic year, a 2.1-percentage-point jump from pre-pandemic levels in 2018–19.

Wheaton, like many institutions, offers study abroad opportunities for junior-level students but found a need to offer programs earlier.

The experiences of traditional-age students are evolving; many have traveled or participated in cultural exchange programs in high school, says Walter Caffey, vice president for enrollment and dean of admission and student aid at Wheaton. “There are also those who choose to take a gap year before college to travel and explore the world. First-year opportunities abroad allow for the experiences without putting education on hold.”

Other students have indicated they want to go abroad before it conflicts with other development opportunities like internships, research or leadership positions on campus.

The program allows students to “jump into intellectual and cultural adventure” at the start of their college career, Wheaton president Michaele Whelan says. Administrators also hope the early study-abroad experience will impact students’ academic careers upon their return.

Study Abroad Promotes Student Success

Study abroad experiences have retention and persistence benefits, as well as benefits for academic engagement.

A recent study from Pepperdine University found students who studied abroad had higher levels of sense of community and well-being compared to their peers who did not study abroad.

A 2017 study looking at first-years who went abroad during their first semester found participants struggled with the transition to residential life after but felt they had a support structure with their peers who also went abroad.

Going abroad: Wheaton students can attend one of four institutions: Blanquerna, Universitat Ramon Llull in Barcelona, Spain; Franklin University Switzerland in Lugano; International College of Management Sydney in Australia; and Paris College of Art in France.

Each campus is in an urban center, and students can study international business, management, communications, international relations, art, design, fashion, culture, sustainability or the sciences, depending on the program. Students in Barcelona, Lugano and Paris will also take a required language course.

Wheaton has partnered with each institution prior to WheaGo, and they are all “small, supportive and academically rigorous,” similar to Wheaton, Caffey says.

Who gets to go: The opportunity is designed for ambitious and mature students who possess a strong interest in global study. The ideal candidate will have some travel experience and an independent learning style, be comfortable in unfamiliar situations, and be interested in one of the special academic focuses.

Students must be 18 to meet visa requirements and complete an application upon enrollment. Gretchen Young, the dean of Wheaton’s Center for Global Education, meets with each applicant to discuss program expectations, student concerns, financial aid or anything else learners may be curious about.

“If I sense that the student is not yet ready to embark on an international academic experience, I am not shy in telling them that I think they would be better served by coming to campus for their first year or so, get their feet under them, and then go abroad later in their college career,” Young says.

How it works: While abroad, students enroll in courses from a Wheaton-selected list that count toward their degree progression for graduation. At their international campuses, students can also take advantage of all student resources including libraries, computer labs, sports and social organizations.

Students pay tuition and housing fees to Wheaton, and most participants will pay for board, with the exception of Paris participants. All institutional financial aid and grants will apply as if it was a residential program.

After finishing the semester abroad, students enroll in a first-year experience course with other incoming students “to ensure they have all of the tools that they need for a successful transition to campus,” McCormack says. WheaGo participants will also serve as mentors for the next cohort of students going abroad.

A distinct twist: Given the nature of the program, WheaGo is more hands-on with first-years than traditional upper-level students who study abroad. Often, Wheaton students abroad are the only representatives of their campus, but WheaGo is a cohort model, in which students could travel to their host countries together with a Wheaton staff member.

WheaGo participants attend summer orientation on campus and meet with their advisers prior to departure. Students receive one-on-one guidance from Young, as well, who will visit the Paris and Lugano locations to help students settle in.

First-years abroad also attend a synchronous virtual course, Learning From Intercultural Experiences, to help them engage mindfully with their host country and culture. The course launched in the summer prior to the initial participants’ departure and will continue throughout the term.

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