An Investment With Boundless Returns
From the Goucher Quarterly, Summer 2009
When it comes to the exploits and adventures of Goucher students, I’ll admit that I am not the most impartial observer. But I was completely blown away last January, when I traveled to Roatan Island, off the coast of Honduras, for a few days, to look in on our intensive course abroad (ICA) in marine biology.
Because of the high percentage of Goucher students who study abroad (soon to be 100 percent), we were required, as part of our reaccreditation process, to have an outside observer visit one of our overseas programs and certify its quality. So it was that I accompanied the director of international studies from another liberal arts college to Roatan, where Cynthia Kicklighter, assistant professor of biology, and Theresa Hodge, senior lab instructor, were leading a group of 14 students in their underwater explorations of one of the world’s most vibrant coral reefs.
"Quality" does not do justice to this extraordinary experience. It’s not just that I had never before seen or heard of students taking tests underwater on special slates; what I witnessed was immersive learning in every respect. This ICA was a very rigorous course of study, in which the scuba divers and snorkelers (students had a choice) packed into three weeks an in-depth look at many species of fish, coral, sponges, and other marine life. Many were science majors, but some were not; the extent to which they formed a supportive and mutually reinforcing community was striking. Along the way, they came to have a clear and subtle understanding of just where they were in the world, and of how the ecology of this place had been drastically affected by tourism and other outside influences.
While we were in Honduras, other January ICAs were unfolding in West Africa, Mexico, and England. Those students were focusing on culture and politics, Spanish language, and theatre, respectively. And this spring, just after the end of the academic year, Goucher faculty are leading interdisciplinary ICAs to China, Japan, South Africa, Argentina and Uruguay, Slovenia and Croatia, and Italy. Other programs give students the opportunity to analyze fi lm in Berlin, performance in Paris, and astronomy in southern Spain. One of the best parts of all this is that when the students return to campus, they tell one another—and those waiting to go abroad next year and beyond—what they have seen and learned.
But these short ICAs, always preceded and often followed by seven-week courses on campus, only tell about half the story. The other (growing) half of our students opt to pursue semester- or year-long Goucher-organized or -approved programs around the world.
Three years in—the first students required to have an overseas experience entered the college in the fall of 2006— there can be little doubt that Goucher’s study-abroad requirement, unique in the country, is a resounding success. We are turning out students who understand that the American experience offers just one of many ways to view the world. They are learning that not everyone is waiting to imitate or follow us—that, in many respects, other people’s ideas and practices offer inspiration for us. And, signifi cantly, we are recruiting new students to Goucher who explicitly decide to enroll because they recognize the importance of this global perspective and want to make it a central part of their education.
With the recession battering Goucher, as it has every institution of higher education in America, some people are tempted to argue that the study-abroad requirement is a luxury we can no longer afford. In fact, however, it has been the major vehicle to make Goucher distinctive among U.S. liberal arts colleges; it has increased applications and brought us an ever more interesting and worldly student population. It has infused classrooms back here on campus with new attitudes and broader horizons.
To be sure, we still have many things to figure out. Greater and earlier predictability—a sense of who will go abroad when and where—will help stabilize student housing on campus and make it easier to sustain certain athletic teams and guarantee a critical mass for other activities. Goucher also needs to build relationships with more exchange programs around the world, in order to control costs while also increasing the population of international students on our own campus. Often, an exchange arrangement will produce a more authentic overseas experience by taking students further out of their comfort zone.
We have to find new sources of financial aid for overseas study, to provide the necessary help to students for whom our standard $1,200 stipend for the first study-abroad experience is not enough. And we must do an even better job of integrating international experiences into our homegrown curriculum. A student who has spent a semester learning about the lives of Aborigines in Australia, for example, needs more outlets to share his or her knowledge and insights with others on and off campus. (Some dance students have handled this issue by demonstrating what they have learned in Ghana or Brazil in needy schools in Baltimore City, and then inviting the young children from those schools to come to Goucher and display their own talents.)
By passing along what they have learned in their studies abroad, Goucher students gain not only the experience of synthesizing and interpreting their new knowledge, but also the opportunity to inspire and educate the people in their home communities. The successes of these programs is proving time and again that study abroad is more than an investment in these students’ futures; it’s an investment in our own—one that we cannot afford not to make.