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Developing a Faculty-Led Study Abroad Program: With the Right Partner, It’s Easier Than You Think

Study abroad is a proven transformational experience for students. There are many off the shelf programmatic choices available, but having a customized program you can control and design that meets your college’s specific needs is often the preferred choice.
 
For anyone interested in building a program of their own, there is a lot to consider.  This how-to guide gives you the tools to take the first steps towards developing your own program that meets your academic, departmental and experiential goals, all while staying on budget and providing a transformative experience for students.

 

With ever-increasing interest and participation in study abroad, incorporating an international experience into the campus curriculum has taken on greater importance in today’s globally-connected world.  Yet while student participation is growing, less than 2% of US college students avail themselves of this wonderful opportunity.

Many faculty have great interest in creating and running study abroad programs of their own.  But it can feel like a daunting task.  Thinking how to get started, let alone arranging a program, dealing with the myriad of logistical details, finding partners to help support the program, recruiting students, marketing, and navigating campus politics can be such mental barriers that any academic might stop before they’ve even started. 

But offering a study abroad experience is not only personally and professionally enriching, it can also be a recruitment incentive to attract students to both the institution and to a specific academic program or college, and a way to differentiate your program from others in your region or even nationally.  

Study abroad is a proven, invaluable life-changing experience for any college student who partakes in it, with students who do study abroad often graduating at a higher rate than peers who do not. Study Abroad can also have career-changing trajectories for both students as well as the faculty and educators who develop and lead such programs overseas. 

 

Benefits of Study Abroad for Students & Faculty

While far from a complete list, here are five outcomes of a study abroad experience:

Students

  • Develop a strong set of soft skills, including self-confidence, multi-cultural communication, dealing with uncertainty and more
  • Become more marketable to employers
  • Take courses that may not be available on campus
  • Graduate at a higher rate than peers who do not
  • Immerse in and understand different cultures

Faculty Leaders

  • Personally and professionally enriching
  • Integrate study abroad into your academic department, making it more marketable to prospective students
  • See parts of the globe you might not otherwise, gaining a different perspective than just as a tourist
  • Teaching at home can be substantially enhanced by your international experiences
  • Enhance your career and become marketable to the finest colleges and universities

Yet despite this, some in academia believe that such experiences are too costly for students to afford them.  Or they don’t have a place in the curriculum.  Or they detract from a student’s ability to graduate on time.  There’s also a general lack of understanding by university administrators of the benefits of study abroad and how to incorporate these experiences into the traditional four-year undergraduate curriculum.

None of these concerns withstand serious scrutiny.  When all the costings have been considered, time overseas can be financially attractive for many students, especially when the range of scholarships available is borne in mind. The benefits are significant.  Graduation and retention rates are often higher.  Employers consistently report that they value a study abroad experience when looking to hire. Study Abroad and the experiences often embedded in study abroad programs such as internships are a High Impact Education Practice.  It instills resilience, organizational ability, and empathy.  Small-group activities outside of the classroom facilitate teamwork and an appreciation of working around a challenge together.

As short-term concerns around Covid-19 are dealt with through renewed approaches to risk mitigation, there will continue to be a number of key factors that faculty need to consider and plan for when designing a study abroad program.  Some of them may never cross a faculty leader’s mind in the early stages of developing a program, but nonetheless are very important to the ultimate success of the initiative.

 

Key Questions for Faculty Organizers

When considering a custom faculty-led program, here are the key questions every organizer should be asking:

  • What topic(s) do you want to teach abroad?
  • Do you want to teach your own campus courses, or work with a partner institution in your intended overseas destination(s) to teach their courses, or a combination of both?
  • Will your program be offered for credit and if so, how much?
  • Will there be an experiential component on the program, such as internship, research or a service-learning project?
  • How long should your program be, and when do you want to run it (think both what time of year and how far out are you planning your program)?
  • Are you thinking of a short program, such as a month during summer, or a program that spans an entire semester or quarter abroad?
  • What is your campus approval process for a new study abroad program?
  • Have you led study abroad student groups abroad before or will it be your first time?
  • What budget are you working with, and what total program cost do you think your students can bear?
  • Is there a minimum number of student participants needed to make the program viable?
  • Will your program be open to students from universities other than your own? Does your home campus allow that?
  • Have you thought about a marketing plan for your new program and how you will recruit students?
  • What is the approval process on your campus in order to get your program launched?
  • Are you partnering with your campus study abroad/International Programs Office (Here’s a hint: you should!)

One final, but equally important question – if not even more important: who will be making all the in-country arrangements?  Once you’ve got a plan in place for your program abroad, then there’s a plethora of details to be worked out in the country or countries you plan to visit. 

There’s housing to be arranged, for both students and faculty leaders.  Then there’s travel arrangements, including flights, transfers and local public and private transport. Programs should have plenty of co- and extra-curricular activities embedded which need to be arranged and booked well advance. Don’t forget guest speakers and company visits when abroad. And, now more than ever, health, safety and emergency plans when traveling and overseas. 

When you look at the above, it can feel very overwhelming to make all these arrangements by yourself, let alone the meticulous planning needed for the program, campus approval processes, and marketing and recruitment of participants.

 

choosing the right partner for Your Faculty-Led Study Abroad Program 

Many faculty may not be aware that there are many specialized International Education Organizations (IEOs) based around the U.S., as well as abroad, that are well-positioned to serve as a partner in not only developing the program alongside of you and your academic department but to assist with all of the logistical components and even help with marketing and recruitment.  If you do an online search for these organizations, you may be surprised to see there is an overwhelming number of results, creating even more of a conundrum.  

In choosing the right education abroad partner organization to help you design and run your faculty-led program overseas, consider the following:

  • Destination-Specific. Look for a provider that specializes in the destination(s) you want to take your program to. It can make it easier to work with one who is also based in one or more of the program’s intended destinations since they will likely have on-site local expertise that you won’t get otherwise.
  • Education Abroad Specialization. Be sure to work with an organization that specializes in study abroad, rather than merely a tour company or travel agency. Those organizations may be good at travel logistics, but they typically don’t understand study abroad and can’t arrange meaningful experiences such as internships that make a program impactful.
  • Is it Too Good to be True? Be wary of offers that seem too good to be true. Any provider organization worth its salt won’t make outlandish offers like “faculty leaders go free” if you bring a given number of students.
  • All the Services Under One Roof. Find an organization that ideally has its own classroom space and housing for both faculty and students. More than a one-stop-shop, these providers can provide a total package of services.
  • Experiential Experience. Do they specialize in experiential opportunities for your students? An education abroad organization that also has expertise in providing internships, service-learning experiences, facility to add on extra-curricular activities and the like, can make your job as a leader a lot easier than trying to arrange and coordinate all those aspects yourself.
  • Let Experience Be Your Guide. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, look for an organization that has longevity in the field of study abroad, and take the time to interview several. Ask about their history, their services, a list of other universities they work with, and references of other faculty you can contact. If they balk at providing this information, it’s an indication you need to look elsewhere.

Choose one of the above and go from there.  If you have a destination in mind, start from there.  Narrow your search down to a small number of providers including specialists and generalists.  If you do not have a specific destination in mind, consider what is important for you.  It is highly likely that you want to develop an experience overseas in order for your students to get exposure to cultures different to their own.  This dovetails with embedding an internship experience into your program.  Identify organizations that offer an embedded internship, for credit, into the program structure.  

 

Thinking About What Type of Program Yours Will Be

Bear in mind the type of program you want and how much YOU want to be involved once the program is up and running.  Would you (or a colleague) want to be teaching one course, two or more?  Ask your shortlist of potential partners what their model is.  After you’ve listened to it and what flexibility might be built in, it will help inform your own decision-making process. 

As a faculty-led program, will the summer be preferable, or are you able to run the program in the spring or fall semester?  It is likely this will partly be driven by considerations on campus. Having said that, if you have some flexibility, ask a potential partner whether running a program with them at a particular time of the year gives any additional benefits, such as courses or events that might be of interest to your goals.

All IEO’s should have their courses accredited by a School of Record. Once you've established that with a potential partner, look at their course catalogue.  Rather than building an entire program from scratch, you may want to offer a single course (or two) of your own, and map a small number of electives or core courses from the IEO and give those to your students as their choices.  A good IEO will let you brand their courses as your own, so it cuts down on what you need to provide yourself, and permits you to focus on bringing your own course(s) annually (or different ones each year) to teach on the program.

 

Be Realistic About the Timeline

While developing a customized faculty-led program can be a lengthy endeavor, it’s important to not rush the timeline.  Many factors have to be taken into account, including:

  • Campus approval processes, which can be long depending on your institution
  • Lead time to make in-country arrangements, especially housing, internships, custom tours and more
  • Time needed by students to plan financially for the experience

Ideally, a minimum of one year in advance of the date you want to arrive abroad is a ball park figure for development.  However, for longer programs, such as those that may be longer-term, such as quarter-long or semester-long experience, more time will likely be needed due to the length and complexity of those programs.

Whatever length your intended program is, make an inquiry as early as possible – even if it is years out.  Look at some website, send an email, or make a call.  A reputable IEO should give you impartial advice.  After all, if in time you do start working with an IEO, it should be a personable, warm and convivial relationship.  Many people working at IEO’s have studied abroad themselves and are well-versed in the nuances of developing a program - not to mention campus politics.   

FIE is the UK and Ireland’s expert study abroad provider. We believe values-driven, active study abroad programs offer a transformative educational experience for the next generation of change-makers.

We partner with university administrators and faculty every step of the way to custom-design transformative, sustainable learning experiences within your budget.  Together, we will meet your goals and help you increase student participation.  See here for our Custom programs page.

We offer semester and quarter courses, first year programming options and concentrations such as Leadership London and Comparative Public Health.  Our Student Global Leadership Conference every spring attracts students from across the USA, the UK and wider Europe.

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