The 5 point guide to building a first year abroad program

Black sign pointing to Admissions Office at an American university

This article is part of a series which also includes Start abroad programs: a game changer for your Admissions Office? and The place of pathways and creative year 1 programming in U.S. Higher Ed.

For years, offering applicants a start point abroad for semester 1 was attempted by very few colleges.  No longer.  Now, institutions across America are offering first year, alternative starts at locations other than their home campus.  It’s not only large schools like Southern California University and Northeastern.   Specialists like the Colorado School of Mines and Berklee College of Music do too, as well as many sitting between.  

Let’s look at what to get right (and what to avoid) if you’re interested in introducing a start abroad program to your institution’s strategic plan.    

1. Define clear goals from the outset: do you want to fine tune your transfer strategy or enhance your college’s value proposition? 

a. Enrollment management professionals: either fine tune your transfer strategy with a pathway program...

If your college has applicants you can’t make an offer to for September on campus entry but you want to keep them in your pipeline, consider offering a place as a January starter.  Entry is conditional on completing your start abroad program.  

If your goal is to add some predictability to your transfer strategy, developing an attractive pathway program for applicants you don’t want to lose is a big step in that direction.

(See our related short video, How a Start Abroad program can enhance your admissions model)

b. ...or is your concern more about differentiation?

Offering a start point other than your home campus when you’re trying to generate new applications is a game changer when it comes to differentiating your college from its peers.  A first semester alternative start abroad helps your college reach an internationally-minded demographic. 

For any individual looking to be admitted to college, an attractive start point other than the home campus offers a breadth of features that says a lot about your college’s wider identity.  These include a global outlook and a commitment to initiatives proven to enhance career readiness.

Where is your greatest priority in your enrollment funnel? A pathway program will enhance your transfer strategy and sits mid-funnel. Standing out from your peer institutions would sit top of funnel.

A start abroad program can meet both of these goals

It goes without saying that the benefits to your college will vary with each option. The first is firmly in the enrollment management category (mid funnel) and the second is about differentiation (top of funnel). Being clear from the outset about your goals will prevent operational recalibration down the line with other on-campus departments and keep you focused on what you’re looking to achieve.  

(See our other blog in this series for a lot more on these distinctions: Start abroad programs: A game changer for your Admissions Office?)

2. Work to get institutional buy-in 

Offering an alternative start abroad is still a relatively new concept outside of admissions and global engagement offices.  Others on campus may not be familiar or confident in the benefits of the model. 

Preferably, the following functions should have a representative from the first planning committee:  admissions, marketing, international, financial aid, accommodation and your student onboarding coordinator for re-entry.

Not having cross campus support from these offices will lead to problems.  Two examples make the point.  Firstly, returning students won’t have anywhere to live without the support of your accommodation office. Secondly, they won’t feel part of the campus community until there’s scaffolding in place to onboard them. 

Whatever your objective in creating the program, make a firm decision on where it will live on campus: coordinating activities from the admissions office should be your direction of travel, with (at least initial) support from your global engagement team.

University staff discussing the benefits of an alterantive start abroad program
Getting buy in from your colleagues on campus will ensure benefits and responsibilities are understood

3. Partner with a local, start abroad specialist VS a more hands on approach

Making the decision to offer a start abroad program and the nature of its ultimate goal is the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of the program’s development.  Both of these elements are completely within your control and skills set.

When it comes to the ‘how’ of development and delivery, it’s time to consider the benefits of working with outside specialists.  There are three options when it comes to delivery and development :

a. Contact an organization which specializes in working with colleges and universities to develop alternative start abroad programs.  

The first benefit here is that an organization enjoying existing relationships with local colleges (to provide a range of courses for you to select from) and accommodation capacity will mean you don’t have to set these up yourself.  

More than a ‘study abroad provider’

More importantly, a specialist with experience of running start abroad programs will appreciate the differences of working with first years over upperclass students who typically study abroad.  These differences are academic, pastoral and conduct related.  A good partner for your college will have scaffolding in place to do the heavy lifting for you.

A start abroad specialist will effectively serve as a trusted extension of your college abroad and understand the core competencies required for first year students
Core competencies

Much like your home campus will have onboarding measures in place for new students, an experienced in-country provider will recognize the multiple transitions of a student starting college abroad.  These include high school to college, home life to living with other students and going from living in the US to living in a new culture. 

As well as recognizing these transitions, ask potential partners about wrap around support both inside and outside the classroom.  A local specialist will be a friendly, capable extension of your college whose leadership you will build a healthy working relationship with.   

b. Contact local universities directly 

Similar to the  ‘working with a specialist provider’ option above.  When you start your search, bear in mind that all the pastoral and wrap around scaffolding will still need to be put in place.  

How far the ‘direct approach with a local university’ will deliver the all encompassing support the program will need is going to be what makes or breaks this option over (a.).

c. The ‘everything in house’ approach

As the name suggests, your college delivers the entire program alone.  There’s a lot of scaffolding involved in building and administering any program, not least one abroad.  

You’ll need to consider everything mentioned above including finding accommodation, finding classroom space, considering what courses to teach and who will teach them. This in itself is a lot and doesn’t include the crucial consideration of providing effective pastoral care.       

4. Avoid the ‘second class citizen trap’

This is a risk, especially if your program’s participants are taken from an applicant pool of people needing a little more academic development.  (Point 1a ’fine tune your transfer strategy’).

However, there is also a risk of the ‘second class citizen trap’ if participants are from your pool of admits (Point 1b: ‘enhance your college’s value proposition’)  because they are further away from the activities on the main campus. 

One crow sitting by itself apart from the others.  To symbolize the second class citizen trap
Avoid the second class citizen trap: there are a number of measures you can take

There are several measures you can take to reassure program participants that they completely feel part of your college’s community.

A sense of shared community with your home campus starts at the recruitment stage….

Position attendance on the program from recruitment stage onwards for what it is - a privilege not enjoyed by the vast majority of their peers across America.  How many people have the opportunity to spend their first semester/year abroad AND earn credit at your college? 

Host a session about the program at your admit days, attended by your in-country partner, or a Zoom session (or two) if your program is for non-admitted students.

…and reinforce it through pre-departure stage

Pre-departure is crucial.  Invite your local partner to deliver the pre-departure orientation.  Consider the option of your local partner delivering countdown to arrival emails that have your logo - it’s important for branding and identity.  Don’t forget to issue all participants an email address from your college!  Consider giving all participants your college’s branded hoodie.  

Make support from your college’s top brass visible 

A quote from your president during recruitment and a visit to the site to meet participants by senior leadership should be on your list. 

Strongly consider employing a ‘site director’ as part of your program’s scaffolding

The individual would ideally be a recent graduate of your college and will live in the same residences as the students.  A site director will be part of the glue that binds the ethos and identity of your home campus with the group abroad.  Your local provider should have experience working with a site director, who will work seamlessly with their own staff.  

5. Reintegration - last, but definitely not least!  

Similar to onboarding students transferring in, integrating your alternative start students is important

This absolutely can’t be an afterthought.  You will need to ensure the returning students feel integrated back on campus.  A successful abroad program will be a failure if the transition back to the home campus in semester two is neglected. 

Your start abroad students may face reverse culture shock upon their return.  Regular touchpoints and engagements should be in place for the group. Much of this scaffolding might already be in place for the onboarding you already do for students you’ve had transferring in.

Consider the value of one of your college staff being the ongoing, designated touch point for at least the first semester that students will be on your home campus.  The individual who’s designated as the touch point might want to do one on one, ‘how are you settling in’ coffee meets. 

The site director (mentioned above) would be the perfect candidate, who’d be returning with the group.  Elon University, NC has these one on ones conducted by the head of study abroad - a reminder of the importance of buy-in from several departments. 

Whoever you designate, this person should be working with the students during the semester abroad to prepare them for their return.  Consider working with your provider so they or your site director talk about key people on campus, embed Zoom calls with the home campus or even replicate your college’s rituals while abroad. 

All of this should be intentionally designed. Marist College NY, for instance, has a ‘Forward to Marist’ series of sessions, which link students in with key departments on the home campus and prepare them for life back on US soil while still abroad. 

What next?

Whatever stage of the journey you’re at with putting together a start abroad program at your college, consider contacting us to have an informal chat and talk through all things first semester abroad. 

Our team has partnered with several colleges to develop and deliver start abroad programs over many years in Dublin, Ireland.  

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