Elon ranks #1 in study abroad, setting new records for global experiences

As more Elon students than ever before traveled overseas this fall for global experiences, a new report from the Institute of International Education shows the university maintaining its top placement in an annual ranking for the number of undergraduates who study abroad.

A record number of Elon University undergraduates spent their semester abroad this fall to explore academic and professional opportunities made available through extended time overseas in vibrant and diverse cultures.

More than 400 students, which is double the number that traveled abroad five years ago for fall semester studies, took part in programs that range from centers in London and Florence supported by Elon University faculty, to affiliate programs through universities in Australia, France, Jordan, China and more.

The trend coincides with a new report that shows Elon maintaining its long-held position as the nation’s top master’s-level university for the number of students studying abroad. In its Open Doors 2014 report, the Institute of International Education ranked Elon University #1 for the total number of students who studied overseas during the 2012-13 academic year.

During that academic year, 1,254 Elon University students traveled abroad at least once. Elon leads a list that also includes James Madison University, Villanova University and Gonzaga University.

The Open Doors Report is published by the Institute of International Education, an independent not-for-profit organization with a network of 19 offices and affiliates worldwide and over 1,200 member institutions. IIE has conducted an annual statistical survey of the international students in the United States since its founding in 1919 and in partnership with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs since the early 1970s.

Among members of last spring’s graduating class, 72 percent of Elon graduates had studied abroad at least once during their collegiate studies. Elon’s high participation rate compares with the national average of less than 10 percent with an international study experience – a percentage that has been steady for a number of years.

“We want students to better understand their own culture as much as they learn to understand other cultures,” said Woody Pelton, dean of Global Studies at Elon University. “Americans tend to forget that we have our own culture, and in a semester program, you’re put in a unique position to learn how to navigate a country or a culture on your own.”

“Global engagement is highly important here, and students might do a winter program or two, but they know they’re only ‘dipping their toes in the water’ for a few weeks,” said Rhonda Waller, director of Study Abroad at Elon University. “They’re coming to us with a desire to explore longer international offerings.”

Semester experiences can further deepen the type of learning that takes places in winter programs. From gaining fluency in a foreign language to experiencing different types of higher education outside the United States, administrators point to various ways that students come back to campus transformed from a semester abroad.

New Approaches to Studying Abroad

University leaders attribute the rapidly growing interest in semester abroad programs in part to new financial aid opportunities and a closer relationship with the Office of the Registrar.

Starting in 2012, Elon has earmarked $150,000 each year for Global Education Center Access Scholarships that “close the gap” between the cost of an international experience, and a student’s demonstrated financial need. The scholarships make overseas travel possible for students who are limited because of financial considerations.

Innovative offerings are also under development. For example, the Isabella Cannon Global Education Center is beginning to focus its efforts on creating and sustaining “embedded travel” classes. Instead of spending an entire Winter Term or semester overseas, classes meet on campus and incorporate travel into the curriculum.

A Winter Term 2015 course learning about microfinance and agriculture visits Peru for eight days after spending the first two weeks of class on campus. This spring, students head to Iceland over spring break as part of a philosophy course that examines authenticity, cultural relativism and radical environmentalism.

Such classes help students study abroad when their otherwise competing responsibilities and schedules prohibit the experience. Cannon Center staff said they believe athletes and students in the performing arts will benefit the most from embedded travel offerings.

“We’re ‘democratizing’ global engagement because it’s not for a special group or any particular discipline,” Pelton said. “What we’re doing here is seeking out and knocking down barriers to international experiences.”

New this year to Elon is a special partnership between the Cannon Center and the Office of the Registrar. An associate registrar is now pre-approving courses from dozens of affiliate programs so that students immediately know how the classes they intend to take overseas fit into their graduation requirements at Elon.

The arrangement gives students a stronger sense of ownership over their academic planning, and it provides them with more time to plan ahead for global experiences more than a year away.

Winter Term remains the most popular time for study abroad participation. More than 700 students registered to study overseas during January 2015, with programs in such places as South Africa, New Zealand, Malawi, India and Vietnam.

Unique to Elon is the preparation students receive for their Winter Term programs. Those enrolled to travel abroad each January take a one-credit course in the preceding fall semester, meeting with their faculty members and classmates as they learn in advance about the nations they plan to visit.

The classes allow professors to forge strong relationships with their students, Waller said. They also give students an avenue to learn about each other prior to their immersion in a new culture.

“This helps build camaraderie. By the time you get on a plane, faculty know their students and the students know each other,” Waller said. “That impacts learning.”