For university teaching staff, building a program overseas is reassuringly achievable
If you’re reading this, the chances are that you are already interested in study abroad and exploring this wonderful opportunity for both you as a professional and for your students. You're not alone. Huge numbers of university teaching faculty accompany students overseas each spring, summer or fall. As an educationalist, it’s extremely satisfying to know you can play a part in your students seeing their own culture and place in the world from a different perspective.
You’re also certainly attuned to what your students are looking for as part of their university experience. The 2004 academic year saw 200,000 US students study abroad. Fifteen years on, the number had hit 350,000. The urge to experience difference is a factor, but so too is a more hard-headed, career-based decision on the part of students and their families. 53.3% of study abroad alumni believe their experience contributed to them receiving a job offer. A huge 80% of US students choose a major because they believe that major will help them get a job. If you’re looking to differentiate your major by supercharging its career-boosting credentials, offering a study abroad experience is a sound choice to make.
Putting a program together can seem like a daunting task. Where to even begin? Who do you speak to internally? How do you navigate the world of third party providers? It’s tragic that the unknowns often put a brake on exploring this opportunity for your own professional enrichment and for your students’ development.
"If you’re looking to differentiate your major by supercharging its career-boosting credentials, offering a study abroad experience is a sound choice to make."
This article is for any teaching faculty who want to find out about what a ‘faculty-led study abroad program’ is and how to go about building one. We look at your role and the role of others on campus. A central place in the study abroad universe is occupied by ‘study abroad providers’ and one will likely occupy an important part of your program abroad. We dedicate the final third of this article to these providers and what to look out for when working with them.
Your short-term program overseas, AKA a “faculty-led study abroad program”
A quick definition. Simply put, any program abroad with faculty accompanying students either as teachers or trip leaders is ‘faculty-led’. It’s rare for faculty not to teach on such a program. The classes faculty teach typically include a course from the university’s portfolio. Courses will either be more General Education, or those existing only at the department level.
General Education (Gen Ed) or department specific?
Courses that are more Gen Ed can be taught by a broader spectrum of staff, and the involvement of the study abroad office on campus is greater. This is because more students will be eligible to participate - the credits will be valid for more majors.
More specialized study abroad programs tend to be housed within academic departments. They are often administered by the staff in that department, because they focus on a particular major or minor. The audience for a study abroad program which is specific to your academic department will be smaller. However, taking this route allows you to offer a course from your department which can really come alive in a particular setting - “Irish Literature”, for example.
Who benefits in a faculty-led program? It’s a win-win (-win)
Whether the courses which make up the academic part of the program are highly focused or from your university’s Gen Ed catalog, there are significant immediate and long-term benefits to everyone involved.
Individual faculty. Putting together / participating in a study abroad program is personally and professionally rewarding. On a personal level, you will become a better teacher. The experience is rejuvenating and you will return with different perspectives and examples to incorporate into your classes. This all helps with achieving more gravitas with your students back on campus.
Your academic department and wider university. Many of the benefits to individual staff also apply to the university itself. Taking a more philosophical stance, a faculty-led study abroad program without a doubt represents the earliest traditions of a humanist college education. Classes are tight knit and small. The experience is highly immersive and allows close interaction between faculty and students - all reinforced by structured extracurricular activities. A faculty-led study abroad program gives welcome space to flip education on its head. Your pedagogical approach can be less about teaching and more about learning. It’s the ideal environment for high impact practices to thrive.
Students are of course the real winners in a faculty-led study abroad program. The benefits to them are not only educational, but also psychological. Your participation in their study abroad program adds a level of assurance to them and their families. Not only that, they benefit by all the planning being conducted by the university beforehand, so the student needs only to pay and go. Sure, there’s commonality there with programs students could participate in when you as faculty aren’t present, but it doesn’t make the advantage of the ‘package’ any less salient. The benefits also include the credit-bearing nature of the program abroad. Typically, all credits earned will contribute to their degree program and financial aid will ordinarily still apply since it’s part of a seamless curriculum.
"A faculty-led study abroad program gives welcome space to flip education on its head. Your pedagogical approach can be less about teaching and more about learning. It’s the ideal environment for high impact practices to thrive."
Which city? Which country?
It goes without saying that the location of your program is vital to the long-term success of it. The preferences of your academic department, wider university and potential student body will have a bearing on where the program should be set up. Not to mention your input as the lead staff member. Sometimes the choice is simple: if you are an Irish Studies professor and you’re looking to establish a program, it’s obviously going to be situated in Dublin or one of the other cities in Ireland. However, more broadly, there are a couple of facets to bear in mind.
(Perception of) Safety. Perception matters, especially to families. This is probably the most important point to consider when choosing where to go, since both students and their families won’t go on your program if they don’t feel safe. Pre-Covid, many western European countries had the same Department of State threat levels as a number of countries in Africa and the Gulf. Yet western Europe in the mind of most Americans tends to feel safer. At the time this post was published in Fall 2021, several western European countries had a threat level actually higher than many countries in these regions. Despite this, study abroad in Europe was still back with a bang in Fall 2021.
"Wherever you opt for, you’ll want somewhere with rich extracurricular opportunities and somewhere students (and their families) are excited and comfortable with."
Appeal. Anybody looking to put a study abroad program together is going to struggle to drum up sustained interest if students don’t want to go there. You’re putting together a program offering that gives students the opportunity to learn, not just be taught. The place is one they should embrace with a sense of adventure.
Inspiration. The place should be somewhere that YOU feel inspired by. Being motivated is important for staff too. The choice might be easy. Taking our earlier example, if you teach an Irish Studies minor, your program is naturally going to be in Ireland. Wherever you opt for, you’ll want somewhere with rich extracurricular opportunities and somewhere students (and their families) are excited and comfortable with.
Who does all the work? Great news - it’s not just you
As the spark for a summer or semester program abroad likely comes from you, and given the title will include ‘faculty-led’ then the onus will be on you to be at the center of the experience. There’s certainly a responsibility on you to make the program inspiring. The course(s) you’d ordinarily teach at home will also need to be reimagined. This is in order to make use of the environment you’ll be situated in. You aren’t only teaching a course on the program. You’ll also be the liaison between the program and your home campus. You are the program manager for that summer or semester and your enthusiasm will make all the difference. You are also the chief contact between your university and your local service provider (see Study abroad providers: doing the heavy lifting, below). Finally, you’ll have a mentoring role for your small group of students, as well as occupying a 'counselor of first resort' role for any cases of homesickness and culture shock.
Having said all that, there can be a temptation to think that it’s ALL on you. Since the impetus behind the program abroad might well have been you in the first place, this is understandable. This can all feel like too much of a burden. However, there are a lot of other people who should be part of getting it off the ground and its smooth running. They sit both internally and externally and have an interest in helping you coordinate the program abroad from the first step onwards. Yes, you might be the teaching faculty wanting to make this happen. But there are important roles held by your campus study abroad office, your departmental teaching and non-teaching colleagues and finally, the external service provider.
Your Departmental / Faculty colleagues
Processing applications for your program. Dealing with service providers. Helping with contracts. Transferring grades back into your university’s system. The list of administrative tasks for your program goes on. Depending on your university, support for this might come from your study abroad office or from within your own department. Either way, having administrative help on board for your program can be a real help.
"...there are many key performance indicators that might be satisfied by study abroad. Any number of them might help in your program’s internal adoption."
Certainly, you will need support and buy in from your dean or departmental chair. Top of the list of considerations is likely to be cost, including whether the fees are likely to be borne through financial aid, from the department, out of students’ pockets or some sort of mix. Your dean will interpret whether study abroad might be a key part of the university’s mission, or the department’s strategic plan. This is important because there are many key performance indicators that might be satisfied by study abroad. Any number of them might help in your program’s internal adoption. These may include ‘enhance the reputation of the university’ or ‘provide professional growth opportunities for teaching staff’ or ‘internationalize the curriculum’. Working with your dean will help navigate your program through the necessary hoops and give its departmental or institutional adoption a real boost.
Your Study Abroad Office
Once you’ve discussed your plans for a program with your own department, the study abroad office is likely to be your next port of call. If you’re raring to go with a new idea for a short program abroad, the need to work with the study abroad unit on campus might seem like an unnecessary brake on getting the program going. However, the university will have measures in place to make this a legitimate, insured and successful program. These policies will be both financial and legal and will help you when it comes to contracts and managing risk. Rather than starting from scratch, there’ll be procedures you can piggyback on.
Study abroad providers: doing the heavy lifting
For many teaching faculty, designing what the program looks like is one of the most exciting parts of the whole endeavor. Working with an external, local expert is going to make developing and delivering your program a lot easier, impactful and allow you to focus on your program’s academic components.
What do ‘study abroad providers’ do?
A number of universities in the US have their own centers in various cities around the world. Unless you work at one of them, it’s highly, highly likely that you will need to turn to a local organization in your host city for support in delivery. If you don’t, you will be faced with putting together a lot of the scaffolding yourself: making provision for the teaching facilities you’ll use; sourcing service projects and internships (if you want that to be part of your program); what about accommodation for your students, you, and perhaps your family?
"Working with an external, local expert is going to make developing and delivering your program a lot easier, impactful and allow you to focus on your program’s academic components."
Welcome to the world of using a ‘study abroad provider’ or ‘international education organization’, or simply a ‘provider’. Without using a local provider, you and your university would need to manage the entirety of the program’s logistics before, during and after it takes place each year. Not to mention keeping on top of what’s going on in that country which might affect the program in some small (or large) way.
A provider will offer courses to build out your program
Organizing the logistical side of your program abroad is an important part of a study abroad provider’s value. Their worth doesn’t stop there. Helping you with additional parts of the academic program beyond your own course or two is an extremely valuable part of their benefit to you.
Many faculty-led programs consist of one or two courses taught by visiting faculty over the semester or summer. The provider will work with you to deliver the remainder of the courses. They are able to do this because providers will typically work with a local university whose own courses can form part of your study abroad program. Take our previous example. If you are focused on teaching an Irish literature course, your local provider in Dublin might be able to offer you (through their local partner) “Ireland: Ancient Myths and Legends” as well as an internship course and various other humanities or business courses.
"Without using a local provider, you and your university would need to manage the entirety of the program’s logistics before, during and after it takes place each year."
Take a Gen Ed example. Your university might have ‘International Marketing 101’ as a core course. Your local provider might be able to teach your students ‘An Introduction to Global Marketing’ which comfortably maps against the learning outcomes of your own university’s course.
A number of providers will also offer internships as part of their provision. This is often provided as part of a credit-bearing course. Having an internship as part of your study abroad program may satisfy your university's internal requirements. It will certainly be of interest to students, who will at least partially view their study abroad experience as a means to enhance their own credentials for a life after college.
In all cases, you’d be able to pick and choose depending on which courses satisfy your own internal requirements – and of course which, taken together, would make for a compelling program for students you’re trying to attract. What’s more, a good provider will advise on engaging, extracurricular activities to help complement your classroom teaching.
Health and mental health
Until recently, student mental health was the elephant in the room. Now it’s openly discussed as one of the most pressing issues of our time. While a study abroad program can help build resilience, that’s only going to happen in a supportive environment. A study abroad provider will have staff trained in mental health awareness, counselling and be plugged in to local support services if they should be needed. Local healthcare services and how to go about accessing them is a key part of what they should be offering.
All providers are not the same
Study abroad providers developed in the first instance because bilateral university to university relationships didn’t necessarily fill all the requirements of what sending universities wanted. For example, the range of pastorally focused, close-knit relationships between a provider’s staff and a university’s faculty and students. Or extensive extracurricular activities (and advising on them).
There are a number of providers out there and it’s important to reach out to a small number to get a feel for them. Some providers operate across several countries and do more than university-level study abroad (high school exchanges, for example). In these cases, you’ll have more countries to consider but your relationships are likely to be less intimate. Others might focus on one, or a very small number of countries which might well allow closer bonds between you and the provider’s staff to develop. How plugged in are they to local study abroad associations? You can easily check – it should be on their websites.
Do bear in mind there’s a difference between a ‘study abroad provider’ which offers all the above and some of the other support services you might come across. There are a huge number of tour companies out there who will only organize tours. Many language schools will only teach a language. When you start contacting study abroad providers, check how comprehensive their services are.
A healthy partnership
In all cases, it’s important you have a good feel for the people you’ll be working with. Sure, they will want to provide a good service so you keep coming back year after year. But many provider / university relationships turn into convivial social relationships too.
"...in time you’ll want to have mutually respectful conversations with somebody at your study abroad provider who understands your position."
Your new partner should be trustworthy, warm, and transparent with their pricing when you speak with them. They should have a solid understanding of campus politics. That’s important – in time you’ll want to have mutually respectful conversations with somebody at your study abroad provider who understands your position. Those are a lot easier if you get on with one another.
Your study abroad office might have policies on which providers you should work with. Alternatively, there might be a ‘best fit’ approach at your university which will mean you can do some research and auditing yourself. Once you’ve got to the stage of narrowing down two or three options, reach out with an informal email or arrange a call. Most people working in study abroad have studied abroad themselves, genuinely believe in the value of an education overseas and understand what it’s like on the other side of the fence.
A viable project, a worthwhile endeavor
There are many reasons why a summer or semester program abroad should be put together. For you as an education professional, wanting to make this happen is a wonderful personal and professional opportunity. Who wouldn’t want to teach a course close to their teaching interests in a stimulating context? For you as a representative of a department at a university, you are playing a part in differentiating your university or major/minor from the others out there. It makes a compelling case to students, who will at least partly be interested because they’re looking for that edge in the world of work. For any educationalist, wanting to nurture a sense of curiosity in students is a given. Get the program right, and you’ll be pushing on an open door with them.
Yes, it will require a (refreshing) mental shift to make it happen. But ultimately, your colleagues on campus and the provider you will eventually work with are rowing with you in the same direction.
Big Pond Education is a custom and faculty-led study abroad provider, with all programming in Dublin, Ireland.
We partner with universities to build cost effective, supportive programs including with internships. We set universities apart and make a real difference to students.