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Faculty: The Link Between Underrepresented Students And Study Abroad

Monday, July 18, 2016  
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International education offices at colleges and universities are instrumental in recruiting students for study abroad; however, many students who participate in education-abroad programs first hear about the opportunity from a faculty member.

Faculty play an important role in encouraging students to study abroad, and are able to influence a large number of students. Approximately 56 percent of Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) summer 2010 study abroad participants reported that they had learned about study abroad through a professor. If a college or university wants to increase the number of students who study abroad — and especially underrepresented students — it should bring faculty into the process of recruiting students for international programs.

In particular, an education abroad office should identify and engage with the professors most likely to interact with, and influence, underrepresented students. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) students are underrepresented in study abroad; therefore, it is essential for study abroad professionals to approach STEM faculty, discuss the importance of study abroad, and emphasize the significance of faculty support in encouraging students to go abroad.  This same approach can be used to encourage ethnic minority students, who also have low study abroad participation rates. Minority students relate culturally to minority faculty members, so they play an even more significant role in persuading these students to study abroad. 

If an education abroad office aims to increase the number of underrepresented students in study abroad, they must connect with ethnic minority and STEM faculty and convince them to become actively involved in study-abroad recruitment. Advertisement, advocacy, integration, site visits, and conferences are ways in which study-abroad professionals can engage these faculty members. 

Advertisement: How To Promote Study Abroad Through Faculty

Education abroad offices are always searching for ways to advertise their programs to students, including study abroad fairs, information tables, their office web pages, social media sites including Facebook and Twitter, and more. These are good ways to promote study abroad opportunities, but are not the only methods that can be used to draw attention to international education programs. By incorporating ethnic minority and STEM faculty into the advertising process, study abroad professionals have another, very effective avenue through which they can reach students. 

Faculty members can endorse study abroad by including necessary information on the direct contact methods they use to communicate with students. This can mean adding study-abroad information to course syllabi, course or professor Web pages, classroom blackboards, or general informational emails sent to students. The information should provide details about study abroad in general, specific and relevant study abroad programs if available, and should direct students to the study abroad office if they have questions. Through this method of advertising, faculty are able to simultaneously publicize study abroad and to demonstrate their support for it. 

Classroom presentations are another beneficial advertising method. Education abroad offices should seek out minority faculty members and STEM professors to encourage them to let a staff member present in their classes. In the spring of 2010, VCU conducted a study abroad presentation in an engineering class. The professor of the course began citing examples of major engineering firms located around the world. The engineering students became more excited and started to embrace the idea of studying abroad, an idea that many of them had never considered before.

Advocacy: An Academic’s Recommendation Goes A Long Way

Once minority and STEM faculty members have agreed to endorse study abroad, you should encourage them to actively advocate for it. They can voice their support of study abroad to upper administration, faculty, students, and parents. Faculty who promote international education, and focus on efforts to encourage study abroad, are essential in establishing a successful study abroad program. 

Faculty can advocate by persuading fellow professors to also promote study abroad in their classes. Faculty-to-faculty influence is extremely important amongst STEM professors, who may feel that study abroad is only applicable to non-STEM majors. Having a knowledgeable STEM professor encourage and recommend international education programs in their field carries much weight for fellow faculty and students in their departments. Faculty members can also mention to the upper administration their desire for advancing and developing international education programs on campus.

Integration: Bringing The World Into The Classroom

Faculty should be encouraged to internationalize their classes, and explain to their students the global impact and influence of people and institutions in their fields. Regardless of the subject, internationalization can be integrated into any course. For instance, a professor can teach about a particular overseas company, organization, or noteworthy leader in their field. They can bring attention to a renowned scientist or author teaching at a respected university overseas, or a pioneer in the field who is based at an institution or organization abroad. Professors can always find ways in which to internationalize a course. Study abroad professionals should encourage and help them to do so, paying close attention to faculty who teach underrepresented students, such as STEM majors and ethnic minorities. Internationalizing a course could serve as a catalyst that ultimately sways a student to study abroad.     

Site Visits: Getting Off Campus Opens Faculty’s Eyes and Minds

Site visits to other universities are an excellent way to show faculty the direct benefits of study abroad. When site visit opportunities become available, encourage minority and STEM faculty to participate. Site visits offer direct insight into the student experience — insight that cannot be gained any other way. For instance, these visits can expose some of the challenges faced by underrepresented students. Often times, it takes a faculty member with a similar background to comprehend these challenges.

Site visits also show professors the specific demands and rigors of a curriculum at another institution. This is especially important for STEM professors, who can then determine how this experience will benefit their students academically. Once faculty members participate in a site visit, they can wholeheartedly endorse certain programs and urge students to participate in them.

VCU encourages faculty to take site visits, specifically to partnership universities, where there is an exchange agreement. At times, VCU will provide funding for faculty members to visit these universities for conferences, meetings with counterparts, research, and directing a faculty-led study abroad program. If a professor is directing a study abroad program with a partnership university, then VCU may fund an additional site visit so that the instructor can properly develop the program. 

Conferences: Fostering Study-Abroad Support Through Networking and Peer Interaction

Education abroad professionals attend conferences and online seminars on international education, and should invite minority and STEM faculty members to participate as well. Attending conferences and online seminars are great ways for minority and STEM professors to increase their knowledge of study abroad and international education. Conferences provide an excellent venue for networking. During international education conferences, minority and STEM faculty members can take part in educational sessions, and meet and speak with other professors in their field who are interested in international education. The information and knowledge they obtain from fellow professors often gives them specific and clear insights into how study abroad can benefit their students.

Conferences and online seminars also impart the challenges related to diversity in study abroad. Once these faculty members become more informed about issues related to study abroad, they may become more actively interested and dedicated to increasing the number of underrepresented students enrolling in study abroad programs. They can develop the knowledge, skills, and ideas to promote, advocate, and support study abroad and, more specifically, encourage underrepresented students to go abroad.  

Faculty: Our Best Allies

Study abroad professionals want to provide international opportunities for all students, regardless of their majors or backgrounds. In order to achieve this goal, we must reach out to faculty. They have direct, consistent contact with students, specifically underrepresented students, and are among the strongest influencers of their academic decision-making. Good working relationships with STEM and ethnic minority professors can provide the best avenue for bringing more underrepresented students into study abroad. Faculty members indeed have a strong desire to help their students find and explore the best educational opportunities available, and — once they are aware of the many benefits of study abroad — often become the strongest champions for international education. Faculty can be our best allies, and we should actively include them in the student recruitment process.

Nasha Lewis is the Program Manager in the Education Abroad office at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU).

(Originally Posted in 2013)