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Semester Abroad: So Old It's New Again

Updated: Sep 12, 2023


Our best assessment of where the field of global education is heading can be summed up in three words: semester study abroad. What's surprising about a program model from the past being cited as a roadmap to the future is the fact that so many semester programs are languishing since the pandemic. Can it be true that these programs are doing poorly today on many campuses yet are still the way of the future?


Yes. Here's why.


Semester Program Models Need Renovation

Just because universities have long offered a storied semester program in a beloved setting doesn't mean today's faculty or students are going to care. In fact as higher education changes so quickly that nobody can accurately game what's ahead, universities everywhere have adopted a "duck and cover" posture where their study-abroad offices and budgets have been concerned.


Semester programs have suffered especially, partly because they can seem like lumbering giants (compared to nimble summer and short-term offerings abroad) and partly because many of them have lost the academic and cultural mojo that girded their historic success. If you ask faculty on campuses where semester study-abroad programs have thrived in the past, most will say something like: "everybody here used to love that program! But it's tired today and needs a new vision or its budget will just collapse. In all candor: I have no idea how that hasn't happened already."


Building a New Vision for Semester Study Abroad on an Old Foundation: Start with Faculty


If university faculty hate being told what to do, it's equally true that we relish being consulted and engaged with when it comes to planning that is likely to have a tangible outcome. That's why renovating semester study-abroad programs should always begin with a thorough audit of what's happening with a university's overall global engagement and continue through a strategic assessment of how signature academic programs, powerhouse professors and well-defined university needs can help to drive new thinking about semester study abroad.


Our clients find this exercise in identifying academic excellence and aligning global mission can be a huge morale builder among faculty, as they begin to apply their learned perspective on what can work best for the university abroad. It's also a powerful opportunity for universities to look at how faculty engagement in global learning can be recast as both faculty development and a new element in the promotion and tenure process.


Student Perspectives Are Everything


When students talk to their faculty advisors and campus global officers about studying abroad, they list getting credit in their major as a top priority. With this metric at the top of the heap, the renovation of semester study-abroad programs needs to have both course creation and academic program alignment as mission critical. For all the horrors of the pandemic, it did jar universities into a new willingness to craft alternative modules for semester learning as well as a high degree of comfort with hybrid learning. These new tools can and should be used in renovating the semester-abroad model


The next thing they say is about wanting an immersive and high-impact experience that's miles removed from powerpoint and asynchronous, online coursework. Here again our students are giving us marching orders we need to heed: they want contact that feels truly engaging with the people who live in the community where they'll be studying! While this may at first be incongruous with using online or hybrid teaching, there's reason to remember the old adage "everything in moderation" as well as the number one thing students tell us they need from global study: degree progress. The rub: 1-2 online courses in a semester-abroad format may be just what students need to make the leap and know they'll see adequate degree progress.


The other things they tell are more nebulous. They want to find a deeper sense of purpose, a more compelling sense of community with their fellow students and a sense of connection to the world. They also care deeply about DEI, sustainability and mental wellness. No one program can easily incorporate all of these elements in the student experience, but all semester programs that are going to succeed in the new global-learning moment are going to need to try.


"If We Build it, They Will Come"


If we just look at metrics related to the numbers of students who are choosing short-term and summer study-abroad programs now, we are likely to walk into the future missing a key lesson from the present. While many students may only choose a short program abroad, we know that many others crave the deeper engagement and connectivity semester programs offer. Study-center models can make these hopes and dreams happen. So can other forms of learning done on a slower, longer format.


For our client universities, the key is to bring vigor and academic relevance back to the heart of every program of this kind. Because we know when we do, it's clear from the success many larger schools continue to have with their semester programs that the past may just be the future.




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