Freshman Study Abroad: A Model for Success

Freshman Study Abroad Student with Mentor

The first, second, and third posts in this series made the case for freshman study abroad programming as a fix for the value crisis in higher education. I asserted that colleges and universities offer undergraduates enormous value. This value is dramatically under-utilized because students arrive on campus lacking the purpose and direction needed to take advantage of those learning opportunities. Study abroad has proven to be an excellent tool in addressing these deficits. But, when students study abroad junior year, the benefits arrive too late. While it is not a silver bullet, high quality freshman study abroad could be a strong step toward solving higher education’s value crisis.

What does high quality freshman study abroad look like?

It is transformative. By creating a learning environment based on the developmental needs of freshmen, study abroad can help students take ownership of their learning. It challenges and supports their critical examination of their values in “real world” contexts. It merges academic study with engagement of critical issues, giving student learning authentic societal meaning. It develops key cognitive skills and capacities. It serves to root each student’s motivation to learn in his or her values, talents, and passions. Ultimately, it creates a student who is prepared to chart a higher education career that is purposeful and aligned with her sense of self. This is a key component of preparing students to unlock the existing value of higher education.

Developmental Needs of College Freshmen

High quality programs are designed to meet the developmental needs of college freshmen. Programs should be designed to support students as they:

  1. Establish their adult identities by examining their values, developing their worldview, and exploring their interests;
  2. Take ownership of their learning by pursuing knowledge that has meaning for them and society, and adopting an inquiry driven approach;
  3. Form a contextual framework through field-based, cross-curricular learning rooted in authentic and dynamic engagement with the world.

By accounting for these needs and intentionally creating a transformational path, freshman study abroad programs can help students develop a sense of purpose and direction that will dramatically improve learning on campus. The remainder of this post illuminates one model for this type of programming. While we believe there are many models to deliver this transformative learning, Thinking Beyond Borders’ Global Gap Year serves as an example of a program designed to meet the developmental needs of and be transformational for students. We have seen measurable success that illustrates the importance of these design principles. In an upcoming post, I’ll share our impact assessment that demonstrates the efficacy of our gap year programs.

Meeting Student Needs in Freshman Study Abroad

The Global Gap Year is comprised of cohorts of students in the college transition (17-19 years old). Developmentally, they rely heavily on their peers for personal support and cognitive processing. Because the cohort is comprised exclusively of students in this unique developmental stage, it becomes a rich environment for social and intellectual exchange.

Adult mentorship is also critical. Highly trained mentors build trusting relationships with students, allowing them to share perspectives and questions at critical moments as students examine their values and process their learning. Freshman Study Abroad Student with MentorOne of the great failures of the traditional transition to college is that students enter a critical period of questioning and growth as they move away from teachers, coaches, and parents that have served as mentors. They move to college campuses where they often are without any direct adult mentoring relationships. Michael Kimmel makes this point brilliantly in Guyland, his examination of male identity development. At TBB, the Program Leaders that accompany the students have at least a Master’s degree and three years teaching experience. They serve as mentors in both structured and informal ways on a daily basis.

The learning environment in TBB programs is defined by immersive, community-based experiences that provide students authentic engagement with the world. The program is comprised of multiple 5-week units, each in a different community. Throughout each unit, students live with homestay families and complete fieldwork alongside local experts working to address a critical development issue. Freshman Study Abroad Fieldwork LearningThis isn’t a volunteer placement. These partnerships are established to provide learning opportunities, not low-skill volunteers (read more about the ethics of “voluntourism” in a previous post). Each day also includes a 90-minute seminar, challenging students to analyze their observations, explore their assumptions and values, and utilize the readings of the Thinking Beyond Borders curriculum to gain global perspective on each of these issues. This process is both academically rigorous and social, giving the students an opportunity to learn through relationships in the local community, their peers, and critical reflection on their own values and assumptions.

Transformative Intentions

Transforming students into the passionate and purpose driven learners they need to be to take advantage of the learning opportunities colleges offer requires creating an intentional growth experience. The Global Gap Year accomplishes this by bridging student interests with their values as they are exposed to critical issues in the real world. Freshman Study Abroad Purpose and DirectionStudents become driven to learn as a pursuit of their passions, curiosity, and authentic social relationships rather than solely as a means of achieving grades. In structured ways students explore their talents and passions and how they can be applied to the real world. Finally, they envision how their values can be aligned with their talents and passions to create a fulfilling career path that also has a meaningful impact on critical societal issues. TBB students complete their Global Gap Year with a vision for how to shape their college career around an exciting alignment of their values, talents, and passions.

Imagine every freshman arriving on campus this prepared to take advantage of the value college offers…

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