Study Abroad Programs Foster Worldviews

Students visit leaning tower at Pisa

 JMU seniors Jessica Novak (right) and Lisa Mauer turn cartwheels in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa while on a study abroad trip to Italy in March 2008. During the trip, Novak continued to write for The Breeze, worked at The Florentine, a magazine aimed at English students in the city, and maintained a blog of her travels, which also included stops in France, Switzerland and Germany.

Photo by Lisa Zinn

Judy Cohen: The philosophy behind international study.

Judy Cohen: History of OIP at JMU.

Delores Blough: Diversity benefits.

OIP Logo Visit the Office of International Programs Web site

By Dan Armstrong, Office of Public Affairs

Jessica Novak had a busy spring semester last school year. The senior communication studies major's course load included political science, literature, Italian and art history. Outside the classroom, she maintained a personal blog and found time to write articles for "The Breeze" and a local magazine.

Of course, 'local' is relative. Novak's is a great example of the multifaceted collegiate experience students expect at James Madison University, but when one considers that she did it all in Florence, Italy, it takes on a whole new meaning.

"It's an incredible opportunity to explore a different way of life and to have the chance to live in a different culture, while studying and doing so with peers," Novak said. "I gained an entirely new perspective on life. By being placed outside of my comfort zone and into an entirely new culture, I learned more about other people, other ways of life and myself than I could ever learn here at JMU."

The JMU Semester in Florence is one of five semester-long programs developed by the JMU Office of International Programs. The other semester-long programs that make up the core of study abroad are London, England; Antwerp, Belgium; Salamanca, Spain; and Beijing, China.

Those are in addition to the 50 short-term JMU programs that last from four weeks to a summer and span six continents, exchange programs with 15 foreign universities and numerous opportunities through other institutions and additional programs offered by external providers.

"A lot of people get involved, but the point is to help the students do what they want to do," said Judy Cohen, OIP director of communications and external relations.

But it's more than just getting students to their destination.

"We want them to be safe and we want them to go on legitimate, sound academic programs," said Cohen, whose husband, Ralph, started JMU's first study abroad program, to London, in 1979. "I think that the programs we have do send students abroad with the idea that everything about their coursework and the cultural experiences they have is tied quite closely to where they are."

From that first class of London-bound students to the more than 1,000 that went abroad in 2007-2008, the OIP has come a long way. In the Institute for International Education's 2007 "Open Doors" report, JMU ranked third among U.S. master's institutions in the number of students studying abroad in semester-long programs and sixth in the number of students studying on short-term programs.

"From when I started in 2003 over the past five years, I've really seen an increase in faculty interest in sponsoring a program, from I think 15 programs to now this summer, we're expecting 50 or so," said Felix Wang, director of study abroad. "For some reason, those who sponsor one program always seem to come back again and again. There's a commitment and a passion, and that's really what they believe in, international education."

Study Abroad and its OIP partner, International Student and Scholar Services, are integral to helping JMU students and faculty experience diversity.

"Part of what people value about diversity is that it does, hopefully, expand everyone's worldviews," said Delores Blough, ISSS director. "Studying abroad broadens that by having people there. Having people here that are from different places does it here on campus."

In 2007, the OIP supported 154 faculty members from other countries, either on visas or as green card holders.

"No one would argue in this day and age that having a global outlook is unimportant. Everyone needs that global outlook," Blough said. "What this office does helps to provide that in some significant ways."

A distinctive way the OIP is helping JMU students become better global citizens is through its intern and volunteer abroad programs. With internship opportunities in London and other parts of the world and volunteer-specific programs in many developing countries, JMU students are making a real impact on the international scene.

But the bigger impact may be on the students.

"Volunteering and interning give students an entrée into the culture or the society that just studying there, though we think that's valuable, does not provide on its own. These add an extra measure, an extra depth of their experience," Cohen said. "There are lots of ways students get involved and bring that passion back with them and turn those experiences into larger, more lasting ones."

That was certainly the case for senior environmental geography major Caitlin Boyer, who worked on a service Alternative Spring Break trip to Haiti in 2008.

"I am sure that I met the happiest, most lovely people I will ever meet. By going on this trip I was also able to connect the research and projects I had been working on with the actual site and people," Boyer said. "To me, that's what education is all about."