Extreme Study Abroad: The World Is Their Campus

06 November 2015
6 Nov 2015 -
As educators question what college should look like in the 21st century, one answer is: global.

And to higher education trailblazers, that means more than junior year abroad or overseas internships. They find campuses to be insular places that leave students ill prepared for a globalized world, and they question the efficacy of traditional pedagogy, especially the lecture format, at a time when the same information can be imparted online.

Consider one emerging approach, wherein students hop from campus to campus across continents, earning an undergraduate degree in the process. In these programs, they spend the majority of their college years outside the United States and immerse themselves in diverse cultures. Foreign cities are their classrooms.

“More and more students, especially at the elite end, are realizing, ‘I can get my basic learning on the Internet and then have this collection of experiences around the globe that enhances who I am as a person,’” said Michael B. Horn, a co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute.

Campus hopping is not for everyone. Many students don’t want to give up the sustained community built over four years on a campus. Administrators note that 18-year-olds who choose this unorthodox college path have a special blend of traits: maturity, curiosity, adventurousness, flexibility and openness.

If It’s Third Semester, This Must Be Berlin

W. Louis Brickman, 18, could have taken many paths to college. As a student at the prestigious Hunter College High School in New York, he was accepted at several elite liberal arts schools and two research universities. But he surprised teachers and friends by choosing to enter the second class at the Minerva Schools, a start-up based in San Francisco, where he will spend three-quarters of his time in other countries. “I’m passionate about international travel, and it felt to me inadequate to stay in one place for four years,” said Mr. Brickman, who was born in Berlin and raised in Manhattan.

Minerva, which is affiliated with the Keck Graduate Institute, was founded by a former tech executive, Ben Nelson, who believed that traditional colleges were not adequately preparing students for the real world.

After freshman year in San Francisco, students will move to a new country each semester; by the time they graduate, they will have lived in Berlin, Buenos Aires, Seoul, Bangalore, Istanbul and London. Minerva’s first two classes comprise 139 students from 35 countries. They live together in leased residence halls, where they cook for themselves, and meet for seminars in libraries, museums or parks. Not owning buildings enables Minerva to keep costs to $22,950 a year, including tuition and housing but not travel.

Minerva’s approach to upending traditional education goes beyond travel. Professors lead live video seminars that are reserved for group projects and debate — students often meet to take the classes together. And while majors are offered in the usual fields, like humanities, science and business, the overarching goal is to teach students to think critically and creatively and to communicate and interact well with others.

“We want them to be able to adapt to jobs that don’t even exist yet, so we give them a great range of the best cognitive tools,” said Stephen Kosslyn, Minerva’s founding dean.

Based on research into how students learn, Minerva’s faculty concluded that a key skill is being able to apply learning in new and different contexts. Toward that end, students keep blogs during their travels about how they’re using the concepts they learned freshman year. Yes, they’re graded.

“For the past 14 years of my life, I’ve been imagining I’d have this traditional college campus experience, so that part has been somewhat of a challenge,” Mr. Brickman said. “But every class is relevant to the real world.”

Living Like the Locals

When Clarissa Gordon, a 21-year-old senior, was studying in India, the electricity would often go out when a paper was due. She would have to find an outside source so she could email it to her professor, but she felt she learned as much from experiences like that as from writing the papers themselves.

“They put us in cities that are not typical for studying abroad, and they let us learn how to live like the people,” she said. “I feel like they teach us how to survive.”

L.I.U. Global, born out of a Quaker school established 50 years ago and later acquired by Long Island University, debuted a European program last year and added three new minors. Students spend a year in Costa Rica and a year in Spain and Italy as a group, and then choose whether to spend a year in China or traveling across Asia and Australia. Senior year they do an internship somewhere in the world, then return to the Brooklyn campus to write a thesis on a global issue to earn a bachelor’s degree in global studies.

“We take the world and its problems as the syllabus for the college,” said Jeffrey Belnap, the dean. “Most study-abroad programs think in dyadic terms — it’s that way in this country and this way in my country — but that’s just the first step in understanding global realities.”

Faculty from both L.I.U. and partner universities teach classes in situ. The school is also experimenting with Google Classroom, a software platform, for class discussions across five continents. Cost of attendance, including in-country expenses and some airfare, is about $50,000.

Ms. Gordon, who is Haitian-American and grew up in West Orange, N.J., is now in Trinidad and Tobago studying how art forms like calypso and theater have been used for political and social purposes, such as emancipation. She hopes to go on to graduate school, and eventually work with refugees. She had applied to traditional schools like Penn State before discovering L.I.U. Global. “I could have sat in a classroom and learned from textbooks,” Ms. Gordon said, “but there’s no other education you can get that’s traveling and learning from people, whether it be a rickshaw driver in India or a Buddhist from a monastery in Tibet.”

The Hop On / Hop Off Degree

Erin McNellis, 21, did not travel far when she started at Webster University in St. Louis, where she also grew up. But she chose it because itsinternational program would enable her to keep on traveling.

Webster has campuses in seven countries, and partnerships with schools in seven more. Students can study in Thailand, Ghana, China, Japan, Mexico and throughout Europe. About 20 percent of its students study elsewhere in the world; some never study in St. Louis at all.

“For us, it’s not about: You go somewhere, you study for a bit and you come back to St. Louis,” said Elizabeth J. Stroble, Webster’s president. “It’s much more about: How can you make the world your home?”

Students can spend full terms at Webster’s campuses abroad, and some courses combine an online or in-person class with an immersion trip; for example, a human rights studies class traveled to Rwanda and a class on international criminal law ended with a trip to Leiden, the Netherlands.

For a seamless transition, credits are the same as on the St. Louis campus, as is the $25,300 tuition, though Webster tacks on a $500 study-abroad fee and in many cases does not pay for airfare.

Ms. McNellis, a senior double-majoring in math and international studies, is spending part of this semester in Athens to study city life in ancient Greece. She has also studied in Rome, London and Madrid and completed an archaeology internship in Ireland. She said that hopping among campuses had given her a different experience than the usual study abroad: “It’s not just a vacation. I’m going to learn.”

“You remember that the other people across the world from you are people,” she said. “They have their own thoughts and motives and dreams and desires. It’s a humbling realization that we’re all the same.”

Source: The New York Times