When a group of about 20 students arrived in Antarctica on Tuesday, they helped Pacific Lutheran University, in Tacoma, Wash., garner a unique distinction. According to the Institute for the International Education of Students, the institution is the first American university to have its students studying on every continent at the same time.
“This really is a high water mark for us,” says Loren Anderson, president of the university. “We live in a globally focused corner of the country -- with many ports and much international trade -- so we have strong conviction to help our students become the next generation of leaders who can communicate with their global peers.”
As part of the “Study Away” program, about 370 students of about 3,600 total at Pacific Lutheran are taking part in 25 study-away programs -- with classes taking place in the far reaches of the world, including Windhoek, Namibia; Beijing; Melbourne; Milan; Lima, Peru; Neah Bay, Wash.; and the Antarctic Peninsula. The seven continents at once distinction comes at a time when international education is at the forefront of attention for the Bush administration, which announced a wide ranging foreign language initiative  last week.
“This is a first in the field of education abroad and bodes well for PLU reaching its target of 50 percent of its graduating seniors studying abroad by 2010,” Mary M. Dwyer, president of the Institute for the International Education of Students, said in a statement. “PLU’s continued support of semester and full year programming is also laudable, since the January term programming will undoubtedly provide a taste of global knowledge that longer duration of study can build upon to produce interculturally competent graduates.”
While insisting that this feat was not calculated, Anderson says it has been a long time coming. For the past 30 years, faculty members have worked to build international relationships, including a partnership with Sichuan University in Western China over 20 years ago. People from other countries make up about 70 percent of faculty members at the university.
Business interests in the university’s Puget Sound community about globalization issues have also spurred growth in this area. For instance, Peter Wang, a graduate of the university and an international trade businessman, gave $4 million to create what’s known as the Wang Center for International Programs, which Anderson says helps pay for travel and research for both students and faculty members.
Anderson is confident that international education programs will continue to grow at the university. Noting that 100 more students were involved in the program this year than last, he says that the goal is to modestly expand the number of students taking part in both the January offerings and study abroad year-long and semester programs. According to recent data from UCLA’s Cooperative Institutional Research Program, 45 percent of freshmen entering the institution express an interest in international study, while this number is 19 percent for freshmen at public universities and 30 percent at other private colleges. After four weeks of study at Pacific Lutheran, that number jumps to 76 percent.
Several students traveling abroad this month have posted messages on the university’s Web log,  which is intended to give students and faculty an opportunity to record their experiences and to stay in touch with their families.
“We are doing our best to ensure that these are real courses with real study -- not just some meaningless trip abroad,” says Anderson. “Faculty members are increasingly preparing quality measures and take their student’s very seriously.”
For the students on the Antarctic leg of the program, evaluations already appear to be glowing. After taking a flight to Buenos Aires, the group headed south to the tip of South America to catch a ship headed for Antarctica.
“It was not until today -- our second day at sea -- that we realized what we had done; we had left the comforts of civilization for the mysteries of the Antarctic,” wrote three members of the group on Monday. “As the latitudes climb and the temperatures drop, we are all anxious to see the wonders ahead: icebergs, penguins, leopard seals, and more.
“We are attending lectures by the ship's guides, our own class sessions, and movies all while adapting to life at sea,” they wrote. “Some of us have adjusted better than others. In spite of good weather, fairly calm seas, and medication, a few in our group have been seasick.”
On Tuesday, Barbara Temple-Thurston, a professor of English and director of the university’s semester program in Trinidad and Tobago, shared more about the knowledge her students been gaining as part of the African study abroad group.
“We have had three outstanding presentations at [the University of Namibia] the last couple of days, two by Professor Kaapama, -- a long time friend of PLU -- on the autobiography of Namibia's first president, Sam Nujoma,” she blogged. “He complimented the students on their insightful questions after the lectures. The third lecture was by Professor Malaba of the literature department, whom we will meet tomorrow again for two more sessions.
“Tomorrow we also have a reception at the office of the Minister of Education, so everyone is preparing their best outfit for the occasion! We'll let you know how it goes!”