Kathleen Fairfax calls them “whistle wetters.”
They are two-week trips, run through Michigan State University’s Office of Study Abroad before the start of fall term, that take incoming freshmen overseas for a mixture of lecture and leisure. The itineraries are packed, with a few hours of humanities education in the morning, followed by cultural field trips in the afternoon. Students get to know professors, classmates and the geography of a foreign country.
The trip is, in short, a taste of study abroad.
Years of surveying entering freshmen at Michigan State showed that a high percentage of students weren't comfortable living and learning overseas, according to Fairfax, director of the study abroad office.
“What we address is the fear of travel, and we give students the chance to do so in a controlled group program," Fairfax said. "We know you can't do a whole lot as far as cultural immersion and language learning in that time frame. We get them over the hump.”
And the hope is that students will come back for more -- though not necessarily to the same country -- when they are upperclassmen with a chance to spend a full term overseas. The Michigan State program began in 2003 with 35 students who traveled to Quebec. That's where a group of more than 30 Purdue University students will spend a week beginning August 5 for the university's similar overseas immersion program.
Purdue's version, in its second year, consists of seminars taught by faculty at the host institution, Laval University, as well as tours of museums and local landmarks. Both Fairfax and Riall Nolan, who helped create the Purdue trip, said that taking students abroad before they begin as undergraduates has its benefits.
"Reaching students at the entry point is especially powerful because it has the potential to shape their whole way of thinking, not just for their time at college, but also for the rest of their lives," Nolan, associate provost and dean of International Programs at Purdue, said in a statement. "And what we find after they travel is that a transformation begins to take place. The students start to feel more flexible, more comfortable with such things as taking foreign language courses, learning about other cultures or becoming aware and informed about foreign policy issues.”
Fairfax added that the trip might be the only time during their college educations when English and engineering majors learn together in peer groups.
Both the Purdue and Michigan State programs are open only to incoming freshmen. Students earn a small amount of academic credit for participation. About 150 students are scheduled to participate in Michigan State's program this summer, which offers trips to Mexico, Ireland, Japan, Canada and the newest location, South Africa. The trips cost anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000, which doesn't cover the study abroad office's program operational costs, Fairfax said.
Ursula Oaks, a spokeswoman for NAFSA: Association of International Educators, said that her office supports increased study abroad by American students. David Larsen, vice president of Arcadia University and director of the Center for Education Abroad, said the summer trips are best suited for students who are inclined to return to a foreign country to study later in college.
Arcadia, which bills itself as an institution with an international focus, offers noncredit spring break trips to Europe (and one to Mexico) for freshmen that are mostly recreational. The college also allows about 75 students a year to take their first semester in college to study abroad. Students are encouraged to spend an additional semester overseas before graduation. The fall program started four years ago because Arcadia had more freshmen than the college could accommodate, Larsen said.
Michigan State's first class to participate in its summer program will graduate next spring. While the study abroad participation rate is 28 percent among all undergraduates at MSU, more than 70 percent of those in the summer in Quebec group have since studied overseas -- an early indication, Fairfax said, that the program's mission is working.