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Barriers targeted, solutions offered

About the time last spring that Harvard University was concluding a study that said its undergraduate students needed more opportunities to study abroad, Washington State University already was commissioning a task force to recommend how it could involve more undergraduate students in its own education abroad program.

The impetus for both is the desire to improve undergraduate education, which is one of WSU’s strategic goals. WSU’s task force was charged by Doug Baker, vice provost for academic affairs and director of the Office of Undergraduate Education, to examine education abroad programs at WSU and other universities, identify barriers and make recommendations for improvement.

Harvard’s most recent undergraduate curricular reviews, in the 1940s and 1970s, were viewed as groundbreaking, and experts in higher education have said they are eager to study the newest findings.

“It’s always an important event when Harvard undertakes a review of the curriculum,” said James Freedman, president emeritus of Dartmouth College. “Because where Harvard leads, others follow.”

This time, however, WSU is a step ahead. After meeting seven or eight times over the summer, the WSU task force in early November presented to the Council of Deans its recommendations.

“It was clear that several of the deans recognize the importance of incorporating education abroad experiences into their programs,” said Candace Chenoweth, assistant director of WSU’s Education Abroad Office and task force member.

“Overall, they expressed strong interest and support for making improvements,” said Ginny Steel, director of Libraries and task force chair.

Although WSU’s number of participants in education abroad has grown steadily over the past few years, the university still lags behind selected peer institutions like Colorado State, Virginia Tech, Texas A&M and Michigan State.

“That was a point of concern for task force members,” Chenoweth said. “So our focus was on how we can increase participation and still ensure a quality educational experience for our students.”

“In our increasingly interconnected and global society, greater attention to the international education of our students must be a priority,” said Provost Robert Bates. “Improving opportunities for study abroad along with other strategic international priorities implemented by the academic colleges and the Office of International Programs will help deepen the global awareness of our students.”

The task force identified four major barriers to increased participation and proposed solutions for conquering those barriers. A detailed report, once finalized, can be found on the International Programs website at http://www.ip.wsu.edu.

Briefly, the four barriers and some of the recommended solutions are:

1) Academic fit. Some students, parents and faculty see study abroad as unnecessary. Some see it as delaying graduation. Some students are reluctant to go abroad if they only speak English.

Some solutions:

• WSU leaders voice support for education abroad via, among others, the strategic plan, policy development, allocation of money for marketing and foreign languages expansion, etc.

“As a task force member, I learned how many students, and often parents, think it will take them longer to graduate if they participate in study abroad,” Steel said. “That’s an important marketing piece when promoting study abroad programs.”

“It doesn’t take longer, if you plan,” Chenoweth said. “Especially if students start the planning process early.”

• WSU leaders promote education abroad as a campuswide initiative and a cornerstone of undergraduate education.

“The task force tried to take a campuswide look at education abroad,” Chenoweth said. “We discussed the implications for offices on campus such as financial aid and housing. We considered how to integrate education abroad into our curricula, and then how to best market education abroad to prospective freshmen and transfers. And we tried to make it clear how important it is for the impetus for education abroad to come from the university’s leadership.”

• Funding is recommended to incorporate foreign language acquisition and cross-cultural awareness into all colleges, as well as to reward faculty and departments that champion internationalization efforts.

“The task force concluded there are relatively few foreign languages offered at WSU,” Steel said. “We came to the realization that if you want a strong education abroad program, you need a strong language program.”

2) Financial concerns. The cost to study abroad may be prohibitive.

Some solutions:

• WSU Foundation and the Office of Grant and Research Development help identify funding strategies.

• WSU allocates funds to support faculty-led study-abroad programs.

• Materials and methods are developed to educate students, parents, faculty and staff on affordable options and to market education abroad as a fundamental component of undergraduate education.

“One of the science representatives at the Dean’s Council suggested that the catalog list alternative four-year course/study plans for students that include a semester of study abroad,” Chenoweth said. “I wanted to stand on the table and clap my hands.”

“At least two of the deans in sciences expressed their conviction that study abroad is as important for their students as it is for students in the liberal arts,” Steel said.

And the opportunities are there for science majors, too, Chenoweth said. WSU has an exchange program with the Technical University of Denmark, for example, offering courses in English in the areas of biotechnology, biochemistry and nutrition, chemical and environmental engineering and more.

3) Faculty and adviser support. Undergraduates are less likely to consider education abroad if faculty and advisers are unaware of or ignore programs and opportunities.

Some solutions:

• The provost allocates funds for appropriate university personnel to visit study-abroad sites and exchange universities.

• College deans strengthen partnerships between their faculty and advisers and the Education Abroad Office.

• Education abroad roles/tasks are incorporated into existing university structures, such as student recruitment, curriculum committees, the tenure process, etc.

4) Fear. Concerns for students’ health and safety decrease participation in study abroad.

Some solutions:

• The Education Abroad Office continues to educate students and parents on specific study-site safety, likely risks, emergency preparedness practices, etc.

• WSU implements policies that align with industry best practices, regularly makes them public and continues to monitor program sites via visits, federal advisories, student and faculty evaluations, etc.

Recommended solutions are marked in the task force report as included in Phase 1 or Phase 2 of action implementation. Phase 1 is through the end of the 2005-2006 school year; Phase 2 is through the end of the 2009-2010 school year, to align with the incoming freshman class of fall 2005.

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