Beyond the Corner: Seven Years After Commission Report, International Programs Thriving at U.Va.

Oct. 25, 2007 — Seven years ago, the University of Virginia's 2020 Commission on International Activities laid the groundwork for a greater emphasis on U.Va.'s International Studies program. International programs, argued the commission, are a unique vehicle through which U.Va. students and faculty are able to extend and challenge themselves as students and as people.

The commission set a lofty goal: that by 2020, 80 percent of U.Va. students would participate in a study-abroad program during their undergraduate years.

Over the last seven years, the University has dedicated significant resources on a number of fronts, including the creation of numerous new positions in the International Studies Office. According to study-abroad adviser Tim Wojoski, that has allowed the office “to diversify our advising by geographic region, so that each of us has a specific geographic area of expertise.”
There has been a major increase in faculty-led programs, both in number and diversity. During the 2006-07 school year alone, U.Va. expanded its offerings in China and Italy, and added new programs in Ghana, Tanzania, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Germany, Wojoski said.

The School of Nursing and the School of Engineering and Applied Science, whose students previously had greater difficulty in studying abroad because of academic restrictions and specialization, now provide the opportunity to further one’s study overseas. The Nursing School launched its first several initiatives allowing students to conduct clinical practice overseas, in South Africa, Honduras and Denmark. The Engineering School launched a program called “Engineering in a Global Context,” which took students to Germany to observe and study.

The popular January Term, which offers opportunities for extended studies in Charlottesville and overseas, was also a 2020 Commission initiative. This winter it will offer eight study-abroad programs in Europe, Africa and Central America.

The nature of international studies is changing as well, reflecting a “continuing student interest in terms of practical involvement within the community,” Wojoski said. The University has responded to this desire to be more involved in service, establishing volunteer placements in existing international programs in Valencia, Spain and Peru — much like Madison House on Grounds.

The University has sought to improve its own international programs, as well as to establish ties with universities abroad. The American University in Cairo is one of several international universities with which U.Va. has partnered to tailor a program to U.Va. students.

As the commission envisioned, study abroad is fast becoming an important part of the college experience for many U.Va. students, who increasingly look to spend a summer, a semester or even a year studying somewhere other than U.Va.

In 2005, U.Va. for the first time ranked among the top 20 of doctoral/research institutions for the number of students participating in study abroad, according to a national survey conducted by the Institute for International Education. U.Va.’s ranking jumped from No. 17 in 2005 to No. 10 in 2006.

During the 2006-07 academic year, 1,914 U.Va. students from every undergraduate school studied or engaged in research in a total of 77 countries, Wojoski said, representing a vast increase over only a few years ago. At that pace, about 40 percent of students will go abroad during their time at U.Va., short of the 2020 Commission's goal, but a much greater number than in years past. 

Gwen Kirk, a third-year South Asian studies major, spent the better part of the last 14 months in Bangladesh and India. She went to these places, she says, because “furthering my language skills and experiencing the places and cultures firsthand is an integral part of understanding that region, and something I'd wanted to do for a long time.”

Her time abroad provided countless previously unimaginable experiences, including a three-day train trip through nearly all of India during which she took in “the amazing changes in terrain, architectural style, language, and climate as I moved slowly southward.”

Reflecting on her time abroad, Kirk said, “Experiencing life in another part of the world is important to understanding the world, and those who live in it, on a much larger scale.” She brought back invaluable new knowledge and understanding of her academic field, a “perspective I never could have had otherwise, and a degree of confidence and greater self-reliance” she had never known before.

Chrissy Parcells, a fourth-year Spanish major, spent the summer of 2006 in Lima, Peru, and the spring 2007 semester in Valencia, Spain.

Parcells said it is important to “live in, study and observe other cultures outside of the U.S.A. in order to have a complete life-learning experience.” Her experience included everything from taking classes in Valencia to getting stuck in the middle of the Peruvian jungle in the middle of the night, “trudging through gobs of mud and water … all with no lights.” The group made it out with no bruises and a great story to tell. Spending time abroad, she said, “helps you gain a stronger sense of independence ... and makes one extremely grateful for all that they have here in the U.S.”

Semester At Sea, a long-standing program whose sponsorship was recently taken over by U.Va., is becoming a popular international studies opportunity.

Commonwealth Professor of Spanish David Gies, who served as U.Va’.s first Semester at Sea academic dean on the summer 2007 voyage, tailored the faculty and curriculum to the specific voyage, which traveled through most of South America. He brought along eight U.Va. faculty members and a similar number of professors from other universities. Classes offered ranged from “The Engineering Wonders of the Incan, Aztec and Mayan Civilizations,” during which students got to see the architecture they studied, to a class in which the students read a novel written by a man who held high office in the government of Daniel Ortega, and then spent a day with the author walking through the place where the novel was set.

“It’s the perfect Jeffersonian concept,” Gies said. “It’s the Academical Village on the sea. You’re on a five-star ship, but you’re eating and talking and traveling, faculty and students together. It’s the very concept of faculty-student interaction. It’s like a residence college where every five days you’re in a different country.”

The fall and spring voyages each take about 700 students on a 100-day journey around the world, and the summer takes about 350 students. “It’s still surprising to me that almost everyone who does it comes back not just pleased, but semi-fanatical,” Gies said. “You get off and start thinking how can I get back on and do it again, and do it better.”

These experiences echo the 2020 Commission's rationale for putting greater emphasis upon international studies.  “Academic life is only one component of learning at the University," Wojoski said. "Personal growth, and social growth as well, better prepare students to be in a global, interdependent world, and to be citizens of a global community.

Written by U.Va. undergraduate student David Pierce.