For most students, college is the time to broaden horizons, stretch imaginations and sample new experiences. One of the best ways to do that is to leave campus — and the country.
“We want to make sure the knowledge students gain at the university are transferable to the real world, and part of that comes from participation in experiences outside the traditional classroom,” said Jeff Palis, associate director of International Studies at Georgia Southern University . “A study abroad can do that.”
At the 20,000-student campus in Statesboro, study abroad options are designed to meet an assortment of student needs, starting with academics.
“Programs have to be accessible to all majors, so in terms of academics offered we look for locations that fit around the world,” said Palis, who has worked with the program for 10 years. “But there’s also a time factor: We offer short-term studies for nontraditional or working students who can’t take a semester or a year off to do this. Some of our students go off for a full year; others go for a few weeks. The majority go in the summer and spend about four to six weeks abroad.”
Some majors lend themselves better to study in other countries, but students can also find programs that make a connection to their course of study, whatever that may be.
“It’s a myth that study abroad is only for foreign language students,” Palis said. “There are some majors where it’s obvious; if you’re a Spanish or international relations major, it will certainly help you with language skills. When you’re living where you have to use that language, you gain more confidence. Speaking and hearing it every day makes a big difference.”
But studying abroad builds other valuable abilities as well, Palis said.
“It teaches problem-solving skills. Most programs challenge students to get out of their comfort zone and experience something different,” he said. “It helps them get over their fears or discomfort with other ways of life and cultures. Overcoming those challenges instills confidence.”
Whether it’s a few weeks or several months in another country, studying abroad widens students’ view of the world — a valuable asset no matter what their chosen field.
“None of us are going into fields that aren’t global in some scope, whether it’s business, engineering, nursing or education,” Palis said. “You need to understand the way the world works to understand your own community. Getting that experience first-hand is something you can’t do in the classroom.”
'An academic experience’
What a study abroad opportunity is not, Palis contends, is “student tourism.”
“I’m constantly fighting against that idea,” he said. “It is an academic experience that includes attending another university or traveling with our professors to study. There are definitely learning outcomes.”
One of Georgia Southern’s programs has sent nursing students and professors to a clinic in Costa Rica where they work closely with the local population.
“We bring supplies and work in the same community year in and year out,” Palis said. “Students stay with local families, so there’s cultural immersion along with community service, which is something we’re seeing a lot more of with these programs.”
The most popular destinations have long been Italy, Spain, France and the United Kingdom, but students also participate in programs in Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Japan and Ghana. Palis also works to establish programs in less-expensive destinations, such as Poland.
“The costs are a big consideration,” Palis said. “If a student has the HOPE (scholarship) that covers their Georgia Southern tuition, and during the regular semester it’s easier than the summer to apply financial aid toward the costs. We also have some scholarships."
Several Georgia universities charge nominal study abroad fees to all students to raise scholarship money and to support programs and events that bring international awareness to campus.
“We understand that there aren’t many financial resources available,” Palis said. “Because of that, we have seen a decrease in study abroad in the summer. Our goal is to have 7 (percent) to 10 percent of the students studying abroad, but currently we’re at 2 percent.”
Palis often works with other schools such as Kennesaw State University to arrange student trips overseas, and he encourages participants to explore scholarship opportunities outside the university.
“It isn’t always easy; it’s going to cost to get there, live there and do things you want,” Palis said. “But when you see the impact it makes on students’ lives, how it changes their perspectives about the world, it’s well worth it.”