Shared experiences: Staff members connect with students through Global Engagement Program

The Global Engagement Program allows select staff members to join students on their study abroad courses and interact with them more closely than they often do on campus.

By Oliver Fischer ‘20

Doug Purnell’s job as database administrator doesn’t offer him many opportunities to connect with students on a day-to-day basis. But thanks to the Staff Advisory Council’s Global Engagement Program, Purnell has built those student connections by participating in study abroad programs in Austria, Germany and Hungary in recent years. Purnell has shared in the experiences these Elon students are gaining as a side-by-side participant.  

​“I don’t get to interact with students really at all, so it gave me the opportunity to experience a course, get to know the faculty better and get to know students better,” Purnell said. “Just spending time with the students, I got to be a college kid again, which was fun.”

The Global Engagement Program (GEP) was started in 2015 as an initiative by the Staff Advisory Council (SAC) to allow staff exposure to global opportunities. “A lot of our staff members haven’t travelled outside the US,” said Julie White, ERP application developer/trainer and member of the SAC. “This is an opportunity for them to be able to do that with Elon students and faculty.”

When the council was formed in 2011, it sent out a survey to staff members asking for feedback and ways to improve their working conditions. White said a theme that emerged was creating more opportunities for staff members to interact with students. Staff members also wished to participate in Elon’s renowned study abroad programs, which close to 80 percent of students now participate in before graduation. Elon has been repeatedly recognized for its emphasis on global engagement.

The SAC partnered with the Isabella Cannon Global Education Center to make that happen and developed an application form that is given to all staff members and encourages participation. In order to be eligible, staff members have to work full-time and have been at Elon for at least five years. “Whoever wants to apply can fill that out,” White said. “It’s a very short and easy application.”

Once all applications are in, the council chooses who may participate in a study abroad course that year and connects those staff members with the GEC to match them up with the appropriate program and faculty members. The GEC makes sure that those selected to travel abroad are fully prepared by enrolling them in a pre-departure class during fall semester.

White said the Council is hoping to increase awareness and build enthusiasm for the program, but recognizes that there are challenges to participating. White said three weeks is also a long time to be away from home for a lot of staff members. “A lot of people find that, because of personal circumstances, they can’t travel for that long,” she said.

Purnell said that staff members don’t need to be afraid of traveling abroad, noting that the university guides staff members them through the entire process and faculty members leading the courses are very supportive. “The professors make you 100 percent comfortable,” he said.

Staff members get to know the students beforehand and receive help if they need a passport. They are also handed a detailed itinerary and given advice on customs, clothing and logistics associated with international travel.

​Those who apply are divided into three classifications. Administrative, office and support and physical plant. The order in which applicant names are drawn from each pool determines who may go on the next study abroad course. The Staff Advisory Council then hands over these three lists to the Global Education Center. For the past two years, two people from each classification were able to participate in the study abroad courses.

Ryan Gay, a service design manager at Elon, said his time in Peru gave him a better idea of what the student experience is like by participating in shared experiences like meals.

“It was a really great group of kids and it was just fun to get to know them on a personal and academic level and see how they engaged with the material,” he said.

Gay’s highlight from the course in Peru was hiking up Vinicunca, also known as Rainbow Mountain. Starting at an elevation of about 14,300 ft, the 5-hour hike concluded at 15,500 ft. “It was probably the most physically demanding thing I’d ever done in my life,” he said.

For more information on the Global Engagement Program and links to the application form, visit