Ten Lessons I’ve Learned while Teaching Abroad

Dr. Timothy Gupton
Dr. Timothy Gupton

This post is authored by Dr. Timothy Gupton, an Assistant Professor of Spanish linguistics at the University of Georgia. He shares ten lessons that he has learned as a faculty member working with students abroad in Costa Rica.

Did you ever have the chance to study abroad? Have you ever dreamed of it? More university students are studying abroad than ever today, and now more than ever, professors and teachers are going abroad with their students. Teaching on a study abroad program has as much to offer for the well-seasoned traveler as it does for the neophyte. During my BA and MA, I participated in six different study abroad programs in Brazil, Chile, France, and Spain. In spite of my extensive experience abroad as a student, I still feel very new to study abroad as a faculty member. I wanted to take advantage of my invitation to contribute to this blog by sharing a series of insights that I have gained in the past two years while teaching abroad. It is a fantastic experience, and I hope that the following ten points will be of service to those currently considering becoming part of a study abroad program in the near or distant future. While many of them are rooted in my personal experience with travel and study abroad, I feel that there is something in these points for any educator considering study abroad

  1. Study abroad is different when you are in a position of responsibility. I constantly dreamed of this day back when I was a study abroad student. I couldn’t wait to one day be an instructor or professor on an international program. Now, I am living that dream, and everyone I tell about teaching abroad thinks it sounds extremely glamorous. Do not be fooled: it is every bit a serious job. Being responsible for a group of young people, many of whom have never been abroad previously, is no small task. You have much less free time than you expect.
  1. Every study abroad program and every study abroad group of students is unique. Your program will not be exactly like mine. The students you will teach are from the home campus, but they are unlike students at the home campus, primarily because this group is traveling abroad. Each group is unique, with different dynamics, desires, goals, and anxieties. Be flexible.
  1. You are part of a team while abroad. Your rank back at the home campus matters less in the study abroad context. While abroad, you are a vital part of a team of people working to make the study abroad experience happen for your students. You need to be on all of the time or you are letting your team and your students down.
  1. Your students come first. Whether it is your first time abroad or your thousandth time abroad, your responsibility is to do anything you can to improve your students’ experience. For example, we ate at a restaurant this past summer where the restaurant staff asked me to help take student orders – and deliver the food. On campus in the U.S., I rarely eat dinner with students of mine, much less take student food orders or deliver food to them. The point is, we were a group of 17, and dinner needed to happen in the moment. Being ready to spring into action and having a positive outlook turned a potentially unpleasant situation into a positive one.
  1. You are an example to your students. More than ever, your students look to you for guidance, and you are most definitely a role model while abroad. Be respectful of the local culture. If you speak the local language, do it often. Be an ambassador. Be excited. The fact that you are enamored with the local indigenous language, are super excited about a local poet, can identify at least five species of trogons (a quetzal is an example of one), or know about local music/musicians will enrich your students’ trip. Inspire your students to broaden their horizons. Bear in mind that students can fall under the spell of your dislikes, too, and often much more easily. Negativity and hostility, especially when directed at the local culture and customs, can be terribly infectious.
  1. Remember that your class stretches beyond the walls of the classroom when you are abroad. The world outside is an amazing resource, allowing you possibilities that might not be available at or near your home campus. Think of creative ways to incorporate those resources and have your students interact with them. For example, I have my Spanish linguistics students design miniature research projects and then go out and collect data from host families and new acquaintances using their cell phones.
  1. You were this age once. Try to recall what it was like before you became the world traveler/sage/expert/leader/educator that you currently are. You have not always been the person that you (think you) are now. Try to be sensitive to the fact that what is happening while abroad is completely new to your students. If you are unsure of what they are experiencing, ask them!
  1. Remember that the world is a very different and much smaller place now. If you studied abroad many years ago like I did, you probably did it without access to email, and certainly without social media. I remember spending hours writing letters and postcards to friends and family. What I have noticed in my recent experiences is that students do not do this anymore. They stay connected using text and video chat on their phones. They are connected in ways we never were, and this is not necessarily a bad thing, and it doesn’t mean that they aren’t getting all they can out of the study abroad experience.
  1. This can be the beginning or the end. Remind yourself and your students: this doesn’t have to be the only time or the last time that they take part in travel or education abroad. Ask them about their plans and goals, and talk to them about their future possibilities. Depending on the type of program, plans and student reactions both during and following study abroad can be an essential part of a valuable classroom activity. The answers to these sorts of questions might also be a good addition to your program’s outcomes assessment.
  1. While you are abroad, every now and then look around, take it all in, and enjoy it! Some people dream of this and never get to do it – and you are getting paid to do this. Whether it is your first time or your tenth time studying or teaching abroad, enjoy the people, sights, sounds, and experiences that you are participating in. Encourage your students to do the same and reflect upon it.

In the end, study abroad is an unforgettable and dynamic experience for students as well as educators. We educators, however, can do many things to make that experience even better by taking advantage of the international context and crafting integrated, experiential learning opportunities.

If you have questions about anything you have read here, you may find it useful to talk about issues specific to your program and/or institution with your colleagues, who are an excellent source of information. However, you can also feel free to email me at gupton1(at)uga(period)edu.

Timothy Gupton (University of Iowa, 2010) is in his sixth year as an Assistant Professor of Spanish linguistics in the Department of Romance Languages at the University of Georgia. He has taught two consecutive summers at the University of Georgia campus in San Luis de Monteverde, Costa Rica as part of the seven-week Latin American and Caribbean Studies program, and plans to return for his third in the summer of 2016.

Photo by Arturo Sotillo

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