As customized, faculty-led study abroad programs increase in popularity, the support behind these programs increases in sophistication. Gone are the days that faculty find themselves in a foreign country for the first time, with a class of students counting on them for their well-being and as their tour guide. Instead, many university study abroad offices are utilizing private companies that specialize in supporting university students and faculty abroad to provide travel planning and support beyond what the study abroad office has the resources to provide. This means lots of additional support for travel planning for faculty who are designing new customized, faculty-led programs. And it also means that faculty will have the help of an on-site program coordinator (OPC) to support both the faculty and the students throughout their study abroad experience. Since the role of the OPC is relatively new to the world of study abroad, it is a role that is shrouded in some mystery and a bit of confusion, and this article’s aim is to help you understand the role of the OPC clearly in order to most effectively utilize this position for the betterment of your next customized faculty-led program.
An OPC is hired by the private travel company contracted through the university study abroad office that coordinates your faculty-led program. The OPC begins work the day before the start of the faculty-led program by arriving at the first location on the travel itinerary, and following up on all logistical aspects of the program like transportation, planned excursions and tours, group meals, and accommodations to ensure all details are as-planned by the program coordinator, and to be prepared to assist the group with their itinerary and day-to-day needs so all goes smoothly.
The OPC provides full program support 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They manage the group pick-up at their arrival airport, as well as the drop-off at their airport of departure and go to all of the group’s scheduled destinations and events. They carry the funds to pay for the day-to-day group expenses, like museum tickets, transportation passes, group meals, etc, and they even carry extra funds to manage emergency expenses. It is the OPC’s job to know how to get from Point A to Point B, including navigating public transportation. Sometimes the OPC also speaks the local language, and can be a great asset in problem-solving and assisting the group with all of their needs in acclimating to the local culture.
If the OPC’s role is properly understood by the faculty and the study abroad program office, the OPC can really transform a faculty’s study abroad experience. If working cooperatively, the faculty can let go of some of the smaller, anxiety provoking details like trying to learn a public transportation system in a new city, and instead focus on what they do best – teaching. The idea of the OPC is to rid the faculty of the travel-management details and allow them to focus on guiding the students through the content in museums, site-visits and other planned excursions.
While the roles of the faculty and the OPC are quite different, they are meant to be complementary, and regular communication can make the OPC and the faculty a dynamic team, able to support the students on all levels. Unfortunately, sometimes differing expectations and unfamiliarity with faculty-led travel in general can lessen the beneficial impact of having an OPC. Regular communication between the faculty and the OPC about what’s happening on the ground, what’s up next and any necessary alterations to the schedule, and problem-solving both small details and larger problems as a team will maximize the effectiveness of having an OPC on your faculty-led program. Also, because one of the primary responsibilities of the OPC is as a risk-assessor, it is the OPC’s job to keep the best interest of the students and the faculty in mind at all times, and to mediate in the off-chance that these interests conflict. Being in a new place is exciting, but with study abroad programs the stakes are high in terms of ensuring that students return home safely. It is the OPC’s job to take in the whole picture, and communicate directly to the faculty in the event that an environment or a choice that is being made is especially risky. The more a faculty can respect this aspect of the role of the OPC, the better it will be for the group.
If you’re planning a faculty-led program, do check-in with your study abroad office and ask them if there will be an OPC during your program. If so, you can relax a bit knowing you’ll be in good hands. And do reach out to your OPC in advance by sending an email or having a skype introduction. You’ll be paving the way for fewer worries and a more enjoyable faculty-led program.