The History of Faculty-led Study Abroad

by Wendy Williamson, Director of Study Abroad, Eastern Illinois University

The History of Faculty-led Study Abroad
The History of Faculty-led Study Abroad

When overseas travel became more accessible through advanced technology, infrastructure, and communication, and tourism boomed as an industry, study abroad at US colleges and universities was born. Within a larger context of adventure and tourism, travel opportunities began not for students to earn academic credit, but for the entire university community to ensue personal edification. In his book, A History of US Study Abroad: Beginnings to 1965, Dr. William W. Hoffa wrote about one of these opportunities in the 1880s, which was coincidentally offered by my alma mater, Indiana University.

David Starr Jordan

Professor David Starr Jordan (January 19, 1851 – September 19, 1931), who became president of Indiana University at age 34, was one of the pioneers of faculty-led study abroad.  He started by leading students, faculty, alumni, and townspeople on short, domestic walking tours in Indiana and surrounding areas. After one thing led to another, he was leading international walking tours around the world…not for the faint of heart I might add. One such tour consisted of 250 miles of walking, plus additional travel by trains and boats, through Switzerland, Germany, Italy, France, and England. As Dr. Hoffa points out, there were probably many universities in the late 1800s (and after) that orchestrated similar tours during the summer, open to the university and local community, for personal edification rather than academic credit. According to Dr. Hoffa, it wasn’t until the 1920s when universities started linking international group travel to academic credit. What evolved was the faculty-led study tour, with visits to various countries and a curriculum taught in English by the leading professors. Students would earn academic credit through examinations and papers at the end of the course.

In addition to taking students abroad, faculty have been sending students abroad long before there were ever study abroad offices. International faculty connections led to faculty-arranged exchanges, which led to professors sending their best students abroad to take classes or study under a friend and colleague in the same area of expertise. Eventually, these individual practices led to institutional connections and partnerships. As they evolved, and US higher education became more litigious, international education grew into a sophisticated industry, and study abroad offices started to emerge.Sadly, there are no statistics available to track the growth of faculty-led study abroad programs; however, IIE has compiled general study abroad statistics since 1996/97. This data includes a short-term category, which is made of faculty-led participants (presumably 70% but not verified). Interestingly enough, short-term study abroad has grown proportionately faster than mid-length and long-term programs. In 1996/97, 42.9% of study abroad participants chose short-term study abroad. Today 56.3% of all study abroad participants choose short-term programs (Open Doors Report 2009, IIE). Short-term participation has proportionally grown 13.4% in a little over a decade.

A comparison between short-term and total study abroad growth in participation, from data available in the Open Doors Report 2009, published by IIE

One of the challenges that many US colleges and universities face is how to support serious, academic specialization along side the grand tours and other faculty-led study abroad models that lend themselves to tourism more than they do academics. It used to be that students chose one college or university, and aside from a junior year abroad, or another study abroad adventure, stayed there until earning a degree. Now, there are a variety of ways to pursue a college degree…distance education (online), transferring credit from one institution to another, dual enrollment of high school and community college students in four-year institutions, and a variety of international options.

In 2005, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported that 60% of college graduates had attended two or more institutions prior to graduating with an undergraduate degree and that roughly 2.5 million students transferred every year. If the number was this high 5 years ago, we can only imagine what it might be today.  This is not all; from a world view, over 2.7 million students are pursuing higher education outside their home country (UNESCO).  With student mobility stronger than it has ever been before, colleges and universities have been forced to collaborate in many different and creative ways, including how they manage faculty-led programs.

It used to be that faculty-led programs were restricted to students who attended the college or university that sponsored them. Not anymore! Colleges and universities are quickly realizing that faculty-led programs are more than grand tours and are far beyond extracurricular. Faculty-led study abroad is (at some institutions) and can be (at other institutions) a vehicle for fostering both a challenging education and global citizenship among students. It can also be a vehicle for attracting pre-college students to an institution. According to a report published jointly by the American Council on Education, Art & Science Market Intelligence for Higher Education, and the College Board, a majority of college-bound students plan to study abroad. In light of this data, it’s a no-brainer how recruiters should proceed in higher education marketing.

It will be interesting to see what happens with faculty-led programs in the future. My hope is threefold:

A. Tourism will diminish and academic rigor will increase – this will occur as academic specialization is better supported by colleges and universities. If one college doesn’t have enough students to fill an ethnobotany program in Asia, for example, then it will choose to recruit students from other colleges and universities to participate, rather than shut down the program. This can only enrich education as a global phenomenon.

B. Student groups will become more diverse – The US seems to be the only country in the world that sends its students abroad in closed groups, from the same college, with a US faculty member,  in the English language.  I look forward to seeing a group of US and international students, from universities around the world, with a faculty member representing a strategically smart, prestigious college or university.

C. Higher Education institutions will better prepare faculty to lead study abroad – Faculty specialize in teaching, not study abroad marketing, program development, or legal issues in higher educaiton.  If colleges and universities are smart enough to build successful study abroad programs, then they should be wise enough to train their faculty to assume this responsibility. All it takes is some thoughtful planning and preparation.

Submitted by Wendy Williamson, Director of Study Abroad, Eastern Illinois University

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One thought on “The History of Faculty-led Study Abroad

  1. Hi Wendy – very well written article. I’m not sure that the US is necessarily the only country in the world that sends it’s student overseas in “closed groups” – I’ve certainly seen plenty of that from UK-based groups too…

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