International Study Programs Yield Long-term Benefits

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Across the Connecticut State University system, professors are building relationships with international field research stations, universities, and embassies. With these professional networks, they are able to develop academically rich study abroad programs, many taking the form of a research trip over spring break, others as summer excursions, and some as full semester-long courses. The trips have immediate, tangible benefits, such as course credits, research experience, and language exposure. As evidenced by the myriad testimonials, thesis presentations, and student-produced videos, the international study trips have a substantial lifelong impact as well.

At Central Connecticut State University (CCSU), history professor Louise Williams has been leading trips to Ireland since 2007. Professor Williams is also the Chair of the International Education Committee at CCSU, which was designed to enhance the international mission of CCSU in various ways, including adding more international courses, increasing the number of students taking courses abroad, and creating more extracurricular and wider community opportunities with international themes.

Professor Williams and professor of sociology John O’Connor team-taught courses in Ireland this spring, offering students a multifaceted academic experience. “My course focuses on historical memory and popular memory in Ireland,” said Professor Williams. “We talk with many Irish people who tell us about their history, and we also go to museums and monuments and murals. So, then I ask the students to consider whether the professional historians and the popular memory are the same or different. People sometimes use history for political purposes, so it’s not necessarily accurate, but we study the history of Ireland before we go from the perspective of professional historians, and then spend eight days traveling through Ireland.”

During the trip, students travel from Dublin to Donegal, and stay at the Irish Studies Centre outside of Derry, where they have speakers come to talk with them about history and politics. “We spend the last three days in Dublin, where we tour the museums, go to Trinity College, and the students really have the opportunity to meet Irish people and immerse themselves in Irish culture,” said Professor Williams. Outside of the academic exploration, having students “just going to the grocery store, seeing what foods are available, using different currency, different electricity—I want them to see and experience how things are different.”

Dr. Paloma Lapuerta, professor of modern languages at CCSU, has been a major proponent of the immersion experience as well. In her 17 years at CCSU, “I’ve taken students to Spain mostly, but also to Chile, Argentina, Japan—I’ve also taken the University Singers to Spain and organized a tour for them there,” she said.

Professor Lapuerta leads two courses abroad—Spanish on the Move and a cultural study trip over the spring break period. Spanish on the Move is a language immersion program to Spain and countries in Latin America depending on the year. Most recently, students have traveled with Professor Lapuerta and her colleagues to the University of Salamanca in Spain, where they live with a host family and take courses with both their CCSU professors and at the University.

“The students sign a language pledge that they will only speak Spanish throughout the trip, which is really good for them; frankly, they go up a level and really improve their Spanish skills while they’re away,” says Professor Lapuerta. “I think some of them learn more in that period than they would in a year normally. The fact that they’re in contact with the language all the time and have to communicate with families that don’t speak English is very good for them.”

This semester, for her spring break course, “I took students to Barcelona and Valencia in Spain,” she says. “During the whole semester, they come regularly to class, and we go in depth about the culture, the architecture, and the art of the place we’re going to go visit.” During their one-week trip, they’re exposed to all of the things they’ve researched and that they’ve discussed in class. “It’s very hands-on once we’re in the country, but the preparation ahead of time is essential for them to know what they’re seeing and how to talk about these things. For example, the issue of the independence of Catalonia was a very relevant this year, and while we were there, they were able to discuss it in-depth with a variety of people.”

At ECSU, former U.S. diplomat and professor of communications César Beltrán leads Global Field Courses to Poland, Hungary, and Austria in a course called “Nazi Aftermath in Central Europe: History, the Media, and the Holocaust.” His upcoming trip this year will be his fourth to Central Europe, where he and his students “travel like locals, going on the trams, the subways, and the busses. We have light suitcases so that we can walk the streets if we have to,” he said. “I want them to experience these places as the locals experience them. I take them to my favorite local dives and coffee shops, and they get to meet the local people as much as possible.”

Professor Beltrán relies not only on his professional experience as a diplomat, but also on the relationships he established while working in embassies abroad. “Because of my connections working in the embassies both in Budapest and Warsaw,” he says, “I’ve been able to get students in to talk with the ambassadors, the public affairs counselor, and the press attachés, which would be difficult or impossible otherwise.” The unique experience allows students to interact and learn from those with significant political and cultural experience in the region, helping them gain contemporary perspectives on the role of the press and media in different countries.

“It’s really about opening their eyes to the world, showing them that there’s more to the world than what see here in Connecticut,” says Professor Beltrán. “For us, it’s like going to a laboratory, but it also helps to show them that we don’t necessarily have all the answers here in the U.S. They learn that they have to network, to present themselves, and that face-to-face communication is more important than texting or emailing. They learn public relation skills and communication skills as well, which are hugely important in their careers.”

Dr. Theodora Pinou, professor of biology at WCSU, leads a tropical field biology course to Costa Rica each spring. “In Costa Rica, the facility is really well designed for a class of students,” she says. “For the course, we meet a few times throughout the semester at a time slot that’s more relaxed—usually in the evening after work. All the background work is done before we leave, and when we’re in the field, they run different experiments and learn to identify organisms.”

Dr. Pinou has been working on a research grant with the National Science Foundation about making studying abroad more accessible for more students, because when they’re studying abroad, they learn to compromise, to take risks, think critically, and solve problems. “In Costa Rica, it’s fun learning because you’re outdoors—it’s a very different type of learning,” she says. “Academically, they’re learning by doing, but they’re in a setting where they’re out of their element, and they find that they really thrive.”

Like many of the above courses, Dr. Pinou’s course is a non-major class, meaning students from any major can sign up. According to Dr. Pinou (and a wealth of student feedback), “It’s a really phenomenal experience. This year especially, I had art majors, and to be in the tropics with art students is really fascinating. The colors, the way they see things—they know how to look at something and capture it visually. The science majors can contextualize and classify what they’re seeing, but I think having students from an art background and from non-science-major backgrounds really complements the class well.”

All in all, the rising availability and affordability of international study programs and research trips, coupled with the invaluable long-term benefits they can yield for students, makes studying abroad an essential résumé item for graduates entering the workforce. Professor Williams and the International Education Committee at CCSU put together a document detailing statistically how study abroad programs lead to better placement after college. According to Professor Williams, “Students who have studied abroad get hired more quickly than other students, they get higher paying jobs, and they advance in their careers more quickly. It also teaches them how to deal with difficult situations, to work in groups, and to be more flexible in stressful conditions.”

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