Study abroad: an option for everyone

Eugene, OR- It’s the last weekend of May and University of Oregon students are out enjoying a rare streak of sunshine. Unlike her friends, Abby Ulf is stuck inside her room frantically packing and studying for finals three weeks before they begin for everyone else. Her room is bare except for scattered piles of clothes, a giant suitcase and a bare mattress where she sits surrounded by piles of books and papers. One decoration remains: a giant map of Spain with a countdown pinned to it.

“I’ve got three more days to rip off that thing until I’m out of this place,” Ulf says. “A year ago I never thought this could happen.” She is preparing to leave on a study abroad program in Seville, Spain that leaves over two weeks before school gets out. Her teachers are allowing her to take her finals early.

At a university offering over 170 programs abroad, there are dozens of factors that influence student choice on the matter. Issues regarding politics, natural disasters and even terrorism weigh in, but for many students, including Ulf, the most pressing matter is money.

More UO students than ever studied abroad during the 2010-2011 school year, but a noticeable shift has occurred in post-recession America. Students are straying from expensive, adventure driven programs where credits earned fall into vague placement. Instead, students are increasingly choosing programs wisely to fit their budgets and educational plans.

Ulf, a junior at the university, is among roughly 400 others choosing to study abroad this summer, most on short five or six-week programs that are relatively cheap compared to traditional study abroad packages. She refers to her program as, “specially tailored” because it allows her to complete 200 level Spanish in seven weeks, earn eight credits and return for the majority of the summer. “Exploring Europe is really just a plus,” she says.

The opposite is true of the past for one university alum. Marilee McGuire, 54, studied abroad through the UO in the spring of 1976 when she went to Avignon, France. McGuire estimates she spent $700-$1,000 total on the trip which was equal to tuition at the time. She had already fulfilled her language requirement as a business major and wanted to go abroad purely to travel. “Earning additional elective and foreign language credits was purely a bonus,” McGuire says. “The experience of being in a foreign country was the reason for participating which not many of my peers at the opportunity to do at the time.”

McGuire says the 70’s were “simpler times,” regarding study abroad and college in general. The new, more realistic model has been gaining popularity since the nineties but a steep incline surfaced in cheaper programs, mainly taking place in summer, when the recession hit.

24 percent more students chose programs in the summer of 2007 than the summer of 2006 while 25 percent fewer students chose to go abroad for the full academic year. Despite the hardships of the times, the availability of these programs made it so only 30 fewer students studied abroad total that year. However, that drop accounted for the only decline in participation in years and hit many programs hard.

Jennifer Jewitt, head coordinator for programs going to Queretaro, Mexico since 1986, says, “The recession really made an impact across the board for my programs.” Numbers in general going to Queretaro went down starting in 2007 and plunged in 2008 and 2009. Following the trend though, more students than ever went on the Queretaro summer program offered in 2007.

Along with several other programs, Queretaro switched from being primarily run and partially funded through the University of Oregon to being completely run by Oregon University System International Programs (OUS) in 2009. OUS is a system that allows students from colleges all over Oregon to participate, not just UO students. Running the program this way allowed summer program costs to be lowered by $1,000.

“We are now completely self sustaining which means we don’t have any university backing. Students are our only source for funding and there is no institutional entity running OUS which helps maintain lower costs overall,” says Jewitt.

OUS provides low cost opportunities in 13 countries, making it a feasible alternative for many students across Oregon. Jewitt says, “We are constantly changing and communicating to make programs available to students who previously thought they were out of reach.” Now, whenever programs fluctuate it’s because prices are changing in Mexico, not in the U.S.

Amanda Ulf, Abby’s twin sister, is going south to Queretaro this July. Like her sister, she says she is able to partake in the program because of its compatibility with her goals and financial plan. “It would be impossible for my parents to send both of us abroad on a regular program,” Amanda says. The combined cost of the girls’ programs is approximately $14,000, which is around $6,000 less than some programs at the university that offer a similar amount of credits.

UO’s Semester at Sea program costs a participant around $20,000, making it one of the most expensive. This program represents an extreme option for adventurous students with cash to spare.

The vast majority of programs are still run by UO, which also does it’s part in making sure costs stay down among other things. The International Affairs Office on campus has 12 full-time staff members dedicated to guiding students toward maximizing their experience, whatever that may mean for each individual.

Cari Vanderkar-Moore, head of the department and director of study abroad programs at the university has overseen an increase of over 500 more students participating each year since she started 12 years ago. Her goal is to see 40 percent of undergrads go abroad each year within her career, an increase of around 20 percent. She thinks she will be able to reach her goal using the same successful method used at the university for over a decade.

Vanderkar-Moore and her staff work to gage student interest and need, and make most of their decisions regarding changes within the programs based off their findings. A huge part of this is obviously finding out where students want to go. “When I started we had one program in China. Now I have to sit here and count them,” she says while counting on her fingers. She concludes there are seven new programs in China since she began.

“I’ve learned to accommodate students from all different cohorts and to realize that all students want to study abroad, not just those in more humanities based majors,” Vanderkar-Moore says. “That is why we now include many more places outside of traditional Europe and South America. To include everyone.”

After finding out where students want to go, she works with them to navigate the system and pick the program that is right for them. This includes the basics along with issues like credit appropriation, creating custom itineraries when needed and other individual needs.

Molly O’Connor, a UO senior, discovered her perfect fit with the help of Vanderkar-Moore and her team. Molly was directed toward a specialized program in Ecuador called the Neotropical Ecology Field Study when she was a freshman but she did not go on the trip until she was a junior. It was lead by O’Connor’s professor at the time, Peter Wetherwax, not the university or OUS. The program consisted of a one-credit reading class, and an intensive one-week course on neotropical ecology, both taken at UO. After the domestic portion, the program spent three and a half weeks in Ecuador traveling and studying ecosystems.

“I wouldn’t even refer to my program as a real study abroad. It was more of a specialized learning experience,” O’Connor chuckles. “I would have never known about it or been able to make it happen without help from advisors, professors and scholarships.”

Vanderkar-Moore always encourages students to come talk to her early like O’Connor. More time means more of an opportunity to find a suitable program and explore alternative cost options like scholarships. She also says that a large amount of the student population does not go abroad because they are misinformed or do not realize how costs translate and compare to a normal academic experience.

Erin Moburg, a Graduate Teaching Fellow at UO, paid the same as her regular tuition when she went abroad as an undergrad. Now a study abroad leader in Mexico, she says she sees “many students misunderstand the costs of programs. They think they can’t go when all they need to do is research.”

A regular, out-of-state student spends around $20,000 in two terms at UO. Instead, they could choose a semester program (about a term and a half) at LaTrobe University in Melbourne, Australia and pay roughly $10,000.

“They’re cutting tuition in half, earning 24 credits, and they’re in Australia! It’s a no-brainer,” Vanderkar-Moore says. “There’s an option for everyone.”

Side Bar 1:

This chart represents the steady inclination seen in study abroad programs from 1996-2005 and the leveling off that began in 2006.

Sidebar 2:

Many factors contribute to student choice regarding study abroad

With programs in over 90 countries, there are dozens of factors outside of the financial realm that influence where students choose to go abroad. Programs at the UO have experienced times where issues such as politics, natural disasters and more have deterred student enrollment. There have even been instances where students have been pulled from their countries mid-program due to extreme circumstances. The university has also seen times where international circumstances draw students to specific places.

After the 2004 tsunami in Thailand, 75 percent fewer students chose to travel there although program locations were far from affected areas. Similarly, after the tsunami in Japan when students had to be evacuated from programs, enrollment went from 78 to 42 students.

Programs have been cancelled in places like Zimbabwe and Mali due to political uprisings. “Our first priority is student health and safety,” Jennifer Jewitt says. Jewitt, who runs programs in Mexico, has to constantly monitor safety warnings due to widespread violence.

Cari Vanderkar-Moore, head of study abroad at the university says sometimes she sees trends she would never expect due to international news. “After 9-11 we actually saw an increase in students wanted to go to the Middle East,” she says. “Students felt that it was more important than ever that they understand things from a different point of view.”

Often students have specific reasons for going abroad that apply only to them. Jared Kaufer, a junior at UO studying abroad in Accra, Ghana this summer, says he is going to Africa this summer to try and make connections in the sports industry there. He has been given an opportunity to intern for the largest sports magazine in Ghana while abroad.

“Soccer is my favorite sport and it’s huge over there,” Kaufer says. “I couldn’t ask for a more perfect opportunity.”

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