Adding Study Abroad to a Journalism Curriculum

I am a huge, huge fan of Study Abroad programs. Last week, the topic enjoyed some relatively rare national attention during the White House’s Summit on Study Abroad and Global Citizenship. (Full disclosure: Alex Montoya, one of our students at West Texas A&M University, was invited to attend.)

We journalism educators should climb aboard the Study Abroad bandwagon if we’re not already securely buckled in. It’s a challenge. It’s exhilarating. It changes lives (that’s not a cliché; just ask someone who has participated in one).

Some of you may be part of academic programs that have long histories with Study Abroad and enjoy strong support from your department chairs and deans. Others may be blazing the Study Abroad trail. I’ve been able to approach it from two different perspectives: as a faculty member who co-created a Study Abroad program from scratch, and as a member of my university’s Study Abroad Committee.

If you’re thinking about challenging your students to study internationally, here are a few things to consider.

Look for Established Programs
If you don’t want to build your own Study Abroad experience, you can encourage your students to explore individual programs that require one or two semesters of study in another country. Your university’s Study Abroad office will help vet program providers and host institutions.

For students who would prefer a short term faculty-led program, chances are pretty good that there are already successful Study Abroad initiatives in other departments. If your students meet the course requirements, they could consider taking the class as an elective.

Create Your Own Program
This is the route my colleague and I took when we built a Study Abroad course that focuses on Travel Writing in Asia. It took about two years from the time we submitted our original proposal to actually taking 10 students on the trip. (I’ll spare you all of the details, but if this is something you would like to consider, I’ll be happy to share how we did it.)

It was worth all of the time and effort because we were able to create a program specifically designed for journalism and mass communication majors. Based on the things we learned the first time around, we’ve tweaked our model and will be using it for another Travel Writing excursion next summer.

Make It Academically Rigorous
Study Abroad is not intended to be a school-sponsored vacation. These courses should be built with the same academic rigor as are other upper level courses. If you’re creating a program, there are a few questions to ask: does the course have a strong curriculum? How does the course relate to the country we’re planning to visit? What will my students learn on this experience that cannot be learned in a normal classroom setting? How will I evaluate students’ progress once we return home?

Talk About It
You can start laying the foundation for a future program simply by becoming more visible. Get to know your Study Abroad director. Find colleagues who have conducted successful programs. Mention it at faculty meetings. Chat up your department chair about upcoming possibilities (and then chat up your dean). Ask students if they are interested.

It’s Getting Attention
According to the recent Open Doors Report from the Institute of International Education, only 10 percent of U.S. students study abroad. Because “employers are increasingly looking for workers who have international skills and experience,” IIE has launched Generation Study Abroad, an effort to double that number by the end of this decade.

Journalism educators can help lead the charge. Our students are particularly suited for the benefits of Study Abroad. International travel gives them certain perspectives and insights that cannot be acquired any other way. It forces them to step outside of their comfort zone. It invites them to reexamine their culture from a different point of view. It encourages them to ask questions.

And equally as important – Study Abroad is just plain fun.

Butler Cain is an Assistant Professor of Mass Communication at West Texas A&M University in Canyon, Texas. He is chair of SPJ’s Journalism Education Committee.

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