Much of the student travel at my former institution, a traditional liberal arts college, involved semesters at Oxford, or in Florence, or maybe someplace with easy access to Australian beaches. At my current place, a teaching-intensive public institution where students are mostly Pell-eligible, first-generation or students of color (and many are all three), international study can be just as important. But it often takes very different forms.
More than 90 percent of the students at my institution grew up in this region and will spend their working lives here. Most have never been out of the country, and many have never left southern New England. That means that we have to create quite different travel opportunities for our students than does the liberal arts college down the road, whose students are much more likely to have passports.
What I explain to job candidates when they come through my office is that our longstanding connections with other countries and their higher education institutions tend to be mission centered. Now, that's not a phrase that many new Ph.D.s have encountered at their graduate institutions. The mission at a doctoral institution doesn't tend to be a topic of discussion for graduate students, and I'm not sure how much missions differ amongst R1 institutions. (I see that my alma mater's mission indicates its desire to be a "world leader in professional, medical and technological education").
But at my regional comprehensive university, we take seriously the official mission of the institution to "support and advance the economic and cultural life of the region" as well as the mission enshrined in the university's strategic goals: that the university "serve as an agent of social justice, instilling in all members of the university community a deeper understanding of the impact they have on the greater good and our world."
Part of my job as a dean is to help job candidates and new faculty members understand that strategic goals and mission can actually mean something. So when I try to sell them on the opportunity to take students abroad, I frame it in terms of our campus understanding of social justice. We take students every year, especially from our College of Education and Allied Studies, to Belize to work with the ministry of education there on a program to keep children and teens in school.
Meanwhile, biology majors and others go to Cambodia every year to work on clean water issues and do some English teaching. Anthropologists take students to Trinidad to work with community organizations on reforestation. Students go to, and come from, Cape Verde, where my university has played a key role in helping to establish the University of Cape Verde -- thanks to our former president, the son of Cape Verdean immigrants who has close ties both to our large local Cape Verdean population and the island itself.
What I want candidates to understand is that some of those trips may be in-and-out voluntourism, but all of them are part of a larger campus ethic not of noblesse oblige but of diversity and social justice -- and at a public institution. That's different, I think, from diversity and social justice goals at a private, tuition-dependent institution. When a public institution, with annual tuition and fees of $8,000, talks about diversity and social justice, it means offering a food pantry for its own students as well as offering students opportunities to serve others. We can't arrange study abroad opportunities that only privileged students can take up. We have to set up short-term trips so that students don't have to miss too much time at their jobs. And we have to try to subsidize the expenses, or we violate our own values.
Three of the faculty members in my college are trying to arrange a study tour to South Africa for our students. They have great ideas about it, involving studying nation formation and monuments and all kinds of historical and cultural investigation that can make for a great student experience. I went to South Africa myself this winter (on my own dime, not on state money), and I worked on setting up some contacts for us at the kind of institution that lines up with our students and our mission. But the toughest thing about setting up a way to take our students to South Africa will be figuring out how to get the costs down to a level at which our average student could think about going.
I'd be interested in hearing from readers about ways you make study abroad opportunities work for low-income students. Travel scholarships? Work opportunities that enable students to save for travel? Cost-saving arrangements with international universities?
I genuinely believe that if you can get students out of the country when they are 19 or 20 years old, their identities change. They become people who travel -- for the rest of their lives. And, goodness knows, we need more people who aren't afraid to go out and learn about someone else's culture.
Students who are at more elite institutions have many opportunities to do that, and their educations are the richer for it. Think about how much study abroad opportunities could enrich the undergraduate experience of the hardworking, not-so-privileged students who attend a regional public institution.