KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The demands on leaders of study abroad programs can be humbling.
“You have to have a willingness to learn and share experiences with students,” said Nancy Guthrie, program coordinator for Iowa State University’s Study Abroad Center and the center’s liaison with the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “One of my most profound learning experiences came in Sucre, Bolivia, one year when I was spending the night on a cot in a clinic. It was cold; the student was severely dehydrated. If any of you know clinics in Latin America, some of them are very small, they don’t have a lot of staff, so I was there if she needed a drink of water; whatever she needed, I was there to help get.
”That’s kind of a reality check when you’re a faculty member. I was mom, I was translator, I was health care evaluator to see whether what the doctors were prescribing for that student were really appropriate or not. And if I hadn’t lived in Bolivia for six and a half years before that, it would have been very difficult.”
“How do we prepare faculty to handle those kinds of situations if they don’t have any previous experience?” Guthrie asked. “Of course they can call back to our offices, and we run through all these scenarios, but still, once the rubber hits the road, it’s very difficult to predict exactly what skills are needed.”
Guthrie and several colleagues discussed the challenges of faculty-led study abroad during a session Wednesday at the annual conference of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, where more than 7,000 professionals have gathered to discuss the benefits of international exchange, incoming and outgoing -- as well as the pitfalls and risks.
“On our campus I’m on the phone with the risk manager every day,” John D. Battenburg, director of international education and programs at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, said during the session on faculty-led study abroad.
Short-term, faculty-led programs are key elements in the ongoing push to increase the number of American students studying abroad. Indeed the majority of students now studying abroad -- 56 percent -- do so on short-term programs. While the quality of these programs is correlated with the quality of the faculty leader -- “Great faculty make great programs,” as Battenburg said -- figuring out which professors will make great study abroad leaders is a fallible process. “The quickest way to ruin a program is to choose the wrong faculty member. And you don’t always know,” Battenburg said.
The faculty leader is thus the “wild card” in any study abroad program, as Richard Webb, president and founder of ProWorld, a study abroad provider, put it. Tales of short-term study abroad programs gone awry because of poor faculty leadership surface periodically (and, for a twist, in the most recent case  to attract news media attention, it was not a professor but a college president who was faulted for the way he handled the suicidal behaviors of a student on a course trip to Costa Rica ).
Such distressing reports will probably keep coming as colleges increase the numbers of short-term programs, but Battenburg stressed the need to put protocols in place to reduce their likelihood. “My campus, we do quite a bit with the selection of faculty members, quite a bit with the training of faculty members, and quite a bit with program delivery when they’re overseas. So with selection, we have an application process, we have a committee that chooses faculty members, and it’s a broad-based committee [made up of former faculty leaders], representing different colleges.
”We have information meetings with the faculty beforehand, so they know what to expect, in terms of compensation, in terms of workload issues, in terms of risk management, in terms of academics. The faculty submit a statement of purpose for those courses they want to offer, teaching evaluations, and the signature of the chair and the dean, which we find very important, because then if there are problems, the dean or chair can’t say, ‘Oh, it’s not my problem.’ ”
Battenburg continued: “We interview the faculty member. We talk a lot about, ‘How are you going to connect the dots? How are you going to use the location, the city or location where you’re going, as a laboratory?’ Then of course we appoint the faculty member, but it’s a conditional appointment. Obviously it depends on enrollment and it can depend on other issues. We also deal with training. We spend a lot of time with risk management. We require all faculty to take emergency management response PowerPoint training. We also have faculty involved in the pre-departure orientation with the students.
“And, then, finally program delivery. We communicate with the faculty often. With our faculty-led programs we send a staff member for at least part of the duration of the program. We have students and we have a supervisor evaluate the program and then we also meet with faculty afterwards. So we take it very seriously. We don’t always get it right. Sometimes we do; sometimes we don’t,” Battenburg said.
Despite the challenges, one message of the session Wednesday was that if colleges want to expand their study abroad capacity, faculty-led programs are an essential component. La Roche College, in Pittsburgh, is ramping up its faculty-led programs significantly: It recently began the Study Abroad + Study USA program, in which all students will have the opportunity to participate in a one- to three-week program abroad or in another part of the United States, at no extra cost (the cost is included in the college’s tuition structure). Those in the entering class of 2009 are the first students who will benefit from the new program, and so La Roche plans to offer 19 faculty-led programs come May 2011. “This can only work with collaboration of the faculty,” said Thomas G. Schaefer, the associate vice president for academic affairs at La Roche. “There is no alternative for this. These are all faculty-, staff-led programs.”
“What we’re seeing is, there is excitement on the part of the faculty, but also apprehension,” said Schaefer. “It’s the fear of not knowing what to do.”
Public Policy at NAFSA
Matters of public policy were also on the agenda at the NAFSA conference on Wednesday. In the annual business meeting, the association’s members approved a resolution calling for the repeal of Arizona’s new anti-illegal immigration law, which allows for the detention of individuals who fail to carry immigration papers. “U.S. public diplomacy strategies cannot be effective if unwelcoming immigration laws are enacted in this country,” the resolution  reads, in part. NAFSA joins a host of other academic associations in condemning the statute. 
Another session at NAFSA Wednesday focused on a more longstanding public policy priority for the association -- lifting restrictions on academic travel to Cuba, which the Bush administration significantly tightened in 2004 . The 2004 changes, which, among other restrictions, limited study abroad to programs that last at least 10 weeks, led to a precipitous drop in the number of study abroad programs in Cuba, from several hundred to, at the low point, less than a dozen. While the tone has shifted under President Obama’s administration -- and Obama lifted restrictions on family travel by Cuban Americans in 2009 -- the restrictions on academic travel have so far remained in place.
This spring, just 70 U.S. students studied in Havana, across nine different programs, Katie McElhinney, resident coordinator for the Presbyterian College Semester in Cuba program, said Wednesday. “Things are happening there but it’s on a very small scale.”
NAFSA is advocating  for passage of House Resolution 4645, which would lift travel restrictions to Cuba and expand agricultural exports. In the session on Cuba Wednesday, presenters were optimistic about the chances for freer exchange with Cuba soon.
“I think we’re at a moment right now when the House [of Representatives] could act and action by the House could spur the administration to act,” said Geoff Thale, program director for the Washington Office on Latin America. “And the end result of that could be, by the end of the year, much greater opportunities for exchange and dialogue between the United States and Cuba, much easier travel and new opportunities for student travel and exchange.”