Foreign study remains steady despite slumping economy

October 23, 2011
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LANSING — Despite the economic downturn, participation in some study abroad programs at public and private colleges and universities has remained steady or grown.

Tara Benzing, the study abroad coordinator for Ferris State University, said her program experienced only a small dip in participation three years ago, but since then has seen an increase.

Benzing said Ferris began a global initiative on campus that has led to more study abroad programs and more partnerships with international schools.

The expansion of Ferris’ global outreach has generated more faculty interest in leading programs, she said, which has a positive effect on student participation. “From the faculty, we see an increase in trying to get students to get an international perspective in their degree,” Benzing said.

Ferris is offering options for students through partnerships in South Korea and Japan.

“A lot of our focus in the past has been in Europe,” Benzing said. “Now we are able to branch out to Asia.”

Ferris remains below the 3 percent national average of sending undergraduates abroad, but Benzing said the university should pass that mark soon.

Like Ferris State, Michigan State University saw a similar dip in participation in the 2008-09 school year.

“We did take a hit, and things fell considerably,” Brett Berquist, executive director of study abroad at MSU, said, “but since then we are back in a growth phase and numbers are slightly up from last year.”

MSU reported that 2,674 students took part in international programs last academic year.

Berquist said MSU has made efforts to reach out to lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgendered students as well as disabled students and non-white students to “continue to diversify the student population we are serving.”

According to Berquist, MSU also has expanded into non-traditional areas like Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.

Other study abroad programs, like Kalamazoo College’s, kept participation steady. Joseph Brockington, director of the Center for International Programs there, credited a commitment from faculty and administration.

He said Kalamazoo’s numbers have stayed consistently between 260 and 280 students going overseas per year. According to Brockington, the college is happy with its participation rate and “really doesn’t want to get any bigger for financial reasons.”

Kalamazoo students have an opportunity to study abroad built into their curriculum, with two quarters set aside to travel in their junior year.

Brockington said that with the constant demand, the number of programs hasn’t been cut, either.

Kalamazoo has strong participation in Spanish-speaking countries like Ecuador and Spain, as well as programs in Japan, Thailand and China.

Brockington said that even with high participation numbers, Kalamazoo tries to keep individual program enrollment between 15 and 18 students.

“When North Americans go abroad, they have a group mentality,” Brockington said. “We want our students to engage the culture. One way we do that is by having our students in a small group.”

MSU’s Berquist said studying abroad provides many benefits for students. Not only do they gain a different perspective of the world but also become acquainted with globalization. Berquist said participants and parents alike see the importance of learning to work with other cultures “to help prepare students for future careers.”

And Ferris’ Benzing said studying abroad gives students tools for a successful future.

“In today’s world, you have to be a diverse citizen,” Benzing said. “You are always going to be dealing with people from around the world.”

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