Study abroad has been reserved traditionally for upperclassmen, but institutions that include Michigan State, Kent State (Ohio), Florida State, American University (D.C.) and the University of New Haven (Conn.) are offering students the chance to learn overseas before or during their first year of college.
Michigan State launched Freshman Seminar Abroad in 2003 with organized spring break trips to Mexico and Quebec. Jim Lucas, director of the program, cites then-president M. Peter McPherson for pursuing international efforts, as well as supporting a transitional program for new students with an overseas component.
Now students can travel overseas in the summer before their first year. In 2015, participants could choose Brazil, Cuba, Ireland or South Africa. “We aligned the first-year seminar with our four-year programs to encourage continuous cultural growth, analytical thinking and integrated reasoning,” says Lucas.
On the trips, students spend two to three hours a day in a classroom and the rest of the hours partaking in field visits, which Lucas says are designed to support the seminar theme and cultural learning, as well as exploring local highlights. This year’s seminar tracks include “Sustainable business and entrepreneurship” and “Folk and fairy tales: Values and ethics of European cultures.”
Some believe studying abroad increases retention and graduation. A chief criticism of that notion is that participants usually fit a certain mold—for instance, white females from upper-class backgrounds whose chances for college success are already high.
In the fall of 2016, Kent State will debut its Honors College Freshmen in Florence program, giving honors students the chance to spend their entire first semester at Kent State’s Florence Center. Students will participate in a specialized honors curriculum under the guidance of a designated faculty person.
The university offers study abroad grants and scholarships from its various colleges specifically for first-generation and low-income students. Administrators hope to encourage stronger ties with Kent State, as well as a larger world view. “Many of these students are unaware of the opportunities that await them outside of Ohio,” says Kenneth J. Bindas, professor and chair of Kent State’s history department.
Sending incoming students abroad before they are officially enrolled on campus creates unique safety and administrative record challenges. Michigan State administrators meet with students and parents before the seminar to outline expectations. For example, if students can’t drink alcohol in study lounges on campus, they shouldn’t be imbibing in a foreign hotel lobby if that’s where people study.
Officials are also supporting faculty of students studying abroad. “We translated the campus handbook into a study abroad guide to help faculty and staff know how to enforce campus policies abroad, as well as help them understand appropriate ‘metaphors’ for the students,” Lucas says.
Since Seminar participants aren’t officially Michigan State students until the fall semester, a strong partnership with the admissions department has been imperative in program recruitment, Lucas says. Admissions will give email addresses of students who have applied to Seminar faculty; feature the program in presentations and materials; and share its time during campus visits for admitted students.
Though there are additional fees for Seminar students on top of regular credit-hour charges, MSU foregoes its usual cut of the tuition and puts that money back into the program to keep costs as low as possible for students.