An open door to the world

From: Public Affairs

A scene from JMU study abroad in Florence, Italy. (Angel America Elza - '10)

James Madison University is the top master’s-level institution in the country in the number of students who participate in short-term study-abroad programs, according to a report released this week by the Institute of International Education.

The “Open Doors 2011” report, which covers the 2009-10 academic year, also reveals that JMU ranked second in the nation in total number of students who studied abroad, with 1,037.

In addition, JMU compared favorably among similar institutions in semester-long programs (17th) and programs lasting a full academic year or longer (7th).

JMU has risen steadily in the annual rankings. In 2008-09, JMU was sixth in enrollment in short-term programs, which generally take place during the summer months; third in total number of study-abroad students; 11th in semester programs; and 12th in long-term programs.

Dr. Lee Sternberger, executive director of the Office of International Programs at JMU, said while the No. 1 short-term ranking is noteworthy, she is also proud of the fact that the university has been able to maintain its semester and long-term study-abroad numbers in the face of declining participation in such programs nationally. “Long-terms are a little harder to do,” she said, in part because academic majors are becoming more prescribed.

JMU’s success with study abroad comes from a combination of institutional support, engaged faculty and students who serve as global ambassadors of the Madison spirit, Sternberger said. “The student experience really matters to us, both in and out of the classroom, and I think that is replicated beautifully in study abroad,” she said.

From its inaugural semester in London in 1979, JMU’s study-abroad programs have grown and flourished, taking on an organic quality, according to Sternberger. “Our faculty sells it to other faculty just like our students sell it to other students,” she said.

Today, JMU students enjoy literally a world of study-abroad opportunities, including semester programs in Antwerp, Belgium; Salamanca, Spain; Florence, Italy; Beijing; and London; graduate programs in Florence and Malta; and more than 40 short-term programs spanning the globe, from Argentina to Madagascar to Vietnam.

The “Open Doors” report found notable increases in U.S. students studying outside the traditional destinations of western Europe. JMU is seeing that trend, too, with more of its students choosing to study in places like India, Brazil, China and Egypt — emerging countries that will play an important role in the future of the U.S. and the world.

International experiences fit in with JMU’s mission to produce educated and enlightened global citizens, and the millennial generation is helping feed that goal.

“Students today tend to have a broader world view and are more open to international travel,” Sternberger said. In fact, a survey by the American Council on Education found that high-school seniors put being able to study abroad near the top of their wish lists in choosing a college or university. They seek out opportunities not only for cultural enrichment, but also service learning and practical experience in their fields of study.

Senior Jessica Johnson, a JMU Centennial Scholar from Richmond, had a teacher in high school who encouraged Johnson to study abroad while in college. A theater major with a minor in Spanish, she chose JMU’s semester in Salamanca. “I thought, if I’m going to go abroad, I should immerse myself in a completely different culture,” she said. Johnson also wanted to become more fluent in Spanish. “I knew that if I was in Spain, in that environment, I was going to have to sink or swim.”

Johnson would learn to swim, completing 15 credit hours over the course of 12 weeks this past spring while developing an appreciation for Spaniards’ slower pace of life — including the afternoon “siesta” — and gaining new problem-solving skills and a sense of self-confidence. “I learned how to say ‘no’ and keep things in perspective,” she said. “It was what I needed, and JMU provided that.”

Felix Wang, director of study abroad at JMU, said Johnson’s experience is typical of students who go abroad. “They start out saying they’re going to go and learn about a particular country or part of the world,” he said, “but they come back and they say ‘I’ve learned a lot about myself.’”

JMU’s Office of International Programs is continually adding staff and resources, and assisting faculty who are interested in leading a study-abroad group. The economy has been a challenge, Sternberger said, but with so many destinations and types of programs to choose from — and a little planning — study abroad can be an affordable reality for JMU students.

For more on the “Open Doors 2011” report, visit http://www.iie.org/

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Nov. 18, 2011