“There are not many times in one’s life a person can drop everything for the opportunity to travel to other countries, explore a variety of cultures and immerse oneself in the unknown,” senior Megan Kent said.
A university study abroad program is one of the few opportunities to make such a change. Kent spent the spring semester of her junior year overseas with Mary Washington’s largest study abroad, the Universidad de Deusto program in Bilbao, Spain.
“Last spring we had a record number of students go abroad,” said Leslie Leahy, assistant director of international academic services
This was a surprising increase considering the recent recession, according to Leahy
Currently, the university has 40 students studying overseas, Leahy said, and saw 83 more go abroad this past spring.
Though UMW consistently sees more students study abroad during the academic year than in the summer, Leahy said she has seen more students choosing to “double dip” by doing both short-term faculty-led programs and semester-long programs.
In 2009, Mary Washington sent 276 students abroad to study, up 62 percent in the past five years, showing that more students are willing and able to take on the challenge of learning in a foreign country.
“I think it takes a certain personality to study abroad… you have to be a bit daring, spontaneous and open-minded,” Kent said. “You have to be open to new experiences, cultures and places. If you are, it will change your life and help you to learn a lot about yourself.”
Faculty-led programs and clubs that travel overseas are also ways the students can explore new cultural experiences without participating in semester-long programs.
From Honduras and Italy to South Africa and England, 12 faculty-led programs as distinct as their destinations have given students a chance to earn credit by learning in more than the average classroom.
Leahy has seen the most growth in programs not necessarily facilitated by the study abroad office, like the men’s rugby team’s spring break trip to Ireland.
“There are a lot of places we don’t coordinate,” she said. “That’s where I see expansion.”
Other regional universities have seen their students show substantial interest in study abroad as well. At Radford University, the vast majority of the students study abroad over the summer on faculty-led programs, according to Teresa King, assistant director of the International Education Center at Radford.
Longwood University encourages its students to experience overseas learning as well. It requires all language students to study abroad and offers education students the opportunity to teach in foreign countries.
In the past year, Longwood University sent 19 of its students to study abroad for two months or longer and 87 to short-term programs, according to Robert Frank, director of international affairs at Longwood.
For Kent, her semester-long experience with UMW’s Bilbao program enhanced her classroom language and culture learning.
“What I found most valuable about studying abroad was the opportunity to travel and meet people from all over the world,” Kent said. “Becoming more familiar with the culture and language I am studying for my major was priceless.”
The College of William and Mary has a sizable program, with approximately 600 students studying abroad each year, according to Emily Hogge, the study abroad and international students and scholars programs and services assistant at William and Mary.
Half of those students partake in the 14 summer programs the college offers, Hogge said, while the rest can choose among William and Mary’s 20 semester programs or a number of third-party options.
George Washington University offers an exceptionally wide array of options for students who wish to study overseas, with a total of more than 250 programs to choose from.
Forty-seven percent of GWU’s juniors take advantage of these opportunities, according to Lucienne Jugant, associate director of the Office for Study Abroad at GWU.
Leahy encourages students to come into Mary Washington’s Office of International Academic Services to take advantage of the available resources, noting that not all the information is readily accessible online.
Grade point average is a considerable factor in acceptance to a study abroad program and, according to Leahy, a high GPA gets students into most of their programs of choice.
Students whose GPAs do not quite meet the requested level, however, do have the opportunity to use their letters of recommendation and positive trends in their grades to explain and perhaps override their average, Leahy said.
Finances are also a consideration for many students. Leahy recommends starting on the process more than a semester in advance to allow more time to acquire financial aid or scholarships.
“If money is tight, there are scholarships to be had and the money is there,” she said. “There is money in very unique areas. Some students really surprise me.”
Rotary scholarships offered by community-based organizations, for instance, are sources that students often overlook but can be of great assistance in funding a study abroad experience.
Photo: Students explore learning possibilities at the study abroad fair during Family Weekend. Anne Elder/Bullet