According to a recent study conducted by the Institute of International Education, the College of William and Mary has the highest percentage of undergraduate students who choose to study abroad of all public doctorate institutions in the United States.
The IIE’s Open Doors 2011 Report showed that 43.9 percent of students at the College have studied abroad in the 2009-10 academic year. This is a 3.6 percent increase from 2008-09, when the percentage was 40.3, following a 6 percent decrease from 2007-08, when the percentage peaked at 46.3.
These numbers correspond with the national trends indicated by the report. Overall, numbers slowed down after the economic downturn beginning in 2007, but began increasing again in 2009-10.
“I think we’ve been paying attention to this for a long time,” Chair of the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures and associate professor of Hispanic studies Silvia Tandeciarz said about the popularity of study abroad at the College. “I think that as a liberal arts college we emphasize — maybe more than other state institutions, I don’t know — the importance of breadth and depth in our education, and part of that breadth is an international exposure. I think that the faculty deserve a tremendous amount of credit because they are constantly recruiting students for study abroad programs.”
Tandeciarz is the faculty liaison for the semester study abroad program in La Plata, Argentina and participates in the governance of study abroad programs at the College.
“I don’t see how you could be educated to be a citizen in the 21st century without some kind of global understanding and global perspective,” Tandeciarz said.
Tandeciarz attributed the College’s preponderance of students who study abroad in part to the nature of the student population and in part to the unique opportunities that students receive abroad.
“I think that our students tend to think about the global reality that they’re engaged in and are very active in terms of finding ways to make it possible to study abroad, whether it’s over the summer or on semester-long programs or even short research trips,” Tandeciarz said. “I think where there’s been a lot of growth has been in faculty-mentored research abroad. The culture of study abroad, I would say, has shifted over the years to more intense mentored undergraduate research experiences, where students aren’t simply going abroad and immersing themselves in the culture and the language and living with host families and studying in classes — sometimes with foreign nationals, other times just with American students — but they’re also going abroad thinking about original research that they can undertake in the field and so using that experience as a lab where they’re pursuing independent research questions under the guidance of faculty mentors. And I think that’s really very exciting and something that’s very special about [the College] in particular and our study abroad [programs].”
Kelsey Conway ’12 agreed, citing the students and the opportunities available to them as the reasons behind the College’s superior ranking.
“I think it’s the students and then the students mixed with the opportunities that we have available for us here [that] really make it so that we have a good study abroad program,” Conway said.
Though many students clearly do take advantage of the study abroad opportunities that the College has to offer, others feel as though obstacles such as finances, major requirements and extracurricular commitments impede them from going abroad. However, there are several solutions to these problems.
“I’m on the golf team here, so I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to go abroad during the semester,” Conway, who spent the summer after her freshman year in Galway, Ireland, said. “I knew that the only time I would be able to do anything would be over the summer.”
Originally, Conway’s interest lay not in study abroad, but just in visiting Ireland.
“It wasn’t really to have the study abroad experience; it was more to visit Ireland specifically, but it turned out that I got a lot more out of doing it by studying abroad than going to visit personally,” Conway said.
The faculty of the College is also trying to make study abroad more accessible to those who believe it to be beyond their reach.
Meanwhile, the Wendy and Emery Reves Center for International Studies is working to advocate and facilitate study abroad for students.
“I think it is getting the message out there over and over that this can be a really important part of your academic course, and then once students are convinced, helping them work out those practical problems — the finances, the academics — getting over those hurdles,” Theresa Johansson, assistant director of the Global Education Office at the Reves Center, said.