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Trusteeship Magazine

Taking a Chance on Change: Universal Study Abroad at a Small Liberal-Arts College

By Sanford J. Ungar

When bringing constructive change to an institution, any new president or board chair must consider both the future effects and the history and traditions of the institution.

No major new curricular requirement can meaningfully take effect without the cooperation of the faculty.

By introducing distinctive and easily understood change, institutions can increase their chances of survival.

Any new college president or board chair has to take the long view of how to bring about constructive, if disruptive, change while also honoring the history and traditions of the institution.

When I was selected in the spring of 2001 to become president of Goucher College in Baltimore, I consulted immediately with a well-placed friend—the successful leader of one of America’s best-endowed and most-respected liberalarts colleges, where my daughter happened to be enrolled at the time. An economist of higher education, he was prescient in foreseeing the crisis that loomed. His words were succinct and potentially frightening: “Not all of these little liberal-arts colleges are going to survive,” he said. “If you want Goucher to be one that does, you’d better find a way to make it distinctive, to be sure that it stands out from the pack.”

That, in retrospect, was exactly what I needed to hear. It was an excuse and a provocation to rock the boat and steer Goucher in a new direction once I got on board a few months later.

During the search and interview process, I had pitched myself as an international person whose attitudes and perspectives had been significantly transformed by his own experiences overseas. Born and raised in a small town in northeastern Pennsylvania that had a rather narrow view of the universe, the son of immigrant parents who probably believed in American exceptionalism more devoutly than anyone else I could ever meet (though they surely never knew or used that term), I had my mind expanded first by majoring in government at Harvard, and then by studying for a master’s degree in history at the London School of Economics (LSE), with a fellowship from the Rotary Foundation.

But mind expansion did not, initially, include becoming worldly wise. Harvard, in my day, did not believe in granting undergraduate course credit for overseas study; most students who insisted on going abroad for anything but the summer generally took a leave of absence. At the LSE, however, there was every possibility to make up for lost time. Then as now, one literally encountered people there from all over the world every day; and thanks to the extraordinary, if occasionally awkward, experience of speaking at the lunch or dinner meetings of more than 25 Rotary clubs in the UK during the course of the academic year, and being invited into their members’ homes, I took my first steps toward an understanding that the American way was not the only way of life.

That got me started. Before long, I gave up my plan to come home and go to law school and stayed abroad for more than three years altogether. During that time, I lived and worked as a journalist in Paris, Nairobi, Johannesburg, Durban, and Cape Town—and traveled to many other places, including Greece, Germany, Hungary, and the Soviet Union, not to mention Eritrea, Zanzibar, and Mozambique. I saw how fragile life and politics could be, covering, among other things, the game-changing 1968 worker-student revolt in France and the brazen assassination of a major contender for the presidency of Kenya. I observed the worst of apartheid and got caught in a military coup in Athens. You name it.

So it is that I came to believe an international awareness could make a major difference in life. Once established back in Washington, I took every opportunity as a reporter and editor, broadcaster, commentator on foreign policy issues, and journalism school dean to go back overseas. Toward the end of the Clinton administration, I served two years as director of the Voice of America, supervising broadcasts in some 50 languages via radio, television, and the Internet. That assignment took me to many more places—Vietnam, Cambodia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Morocco, and the two Congos, to mention a few.

Playing to Strengths and Traditions

Fortunately, the Goucher board understood where I was coming from and where I wanted to take the college, if given the opportunity to lead it. I was playing to its strengths and eccentricities: Founded as the Woman’s College of Baltimore City in 1885 by a group of Methodist ministers and missionaries, from its earliest days it had welcomed students from around the world.

In fact, Goucher’s second president, John Franklin Goucher, for whom the college was eventually named, was a legendary traveler and explorer. Before, during, and after his presidency, he left for months at a time on ambitious journeys of discovery and sent home detailed notes on what he had seen and whom he had met. Sometimes his travels were chronicled and pictured in National Geographic. Underwritten by the wealthy father of his wife, Mary Fisher Goucher, he and she bought and donated the land for what would become a prestigious pre-K-through-doctoral institution in central Tokyo and also established schools at various levels in China, Korea, and India, many of which are still thriving today.

A later president of Goucher, David Allan Robertson, came to the job in 1930 after establishing a national junior-yearabroad program during the mid-1920s as an official of the American Council on Education. Goucher students themselves began studying abroad in 1938. Famously, starting in 1949, they raised money to help cover room and board expenses for a new wave of international students who studied on the Baltimore campus for a year and could not afford to pay all the fees. Thus, the institution became self-consciouslyconnected to the larger world earlier than most.

Winning a Political Battle

I arrived at Goucher in July 2001, just 72 days before the September 11 terrorist attacks, without a doctorate but with a few original ideas about how to move the college forward. One, inspired by the advice of my aforementioned mentor and calling upon Goucher’s unique history, was to achieve distinctiveness in the marketplace by requiring study abroad for every undergraduate. My strong conviction was that we wanted to offer young people a specific, substantive reason to apply to Goucher, not just because they had an open line available on the Common Application. I introduced the idea rhetorically in my inaugural address in October of that year, and I took it straight to the strategic planning group I had convened to look at Goucher’s future.

Everyone noticed. On the one hand, the notion was not as radical as it sounded, because quite a few Goucher students— just over 30 percent—were already studying overseas, in various formats, including three-week intensive courses abroad (ICAs) in places as familiar as London and Rome and as far-flung as Honduras and Ghana.

On the other hand, it could be presented as a new beginning, a sharp break from the recent past—taking an already popular phenomenon and making it a universal experience among our students. Coed since 1986, the college had an inspired and devoted faculty and staff and an ambitious curriculum, and it was happily situated among the 40 institutions featured in the iconic guidebook, Colleges That Change Lives. But in truth, it was difficult to distinguish Goucher from many of its peers, and applications and enrollment had recently become flat from year to year.

The trustees were, for the most part, highly enthusiastic about the idea— although a few were understandably worried about sending all of our students out into a dangerous world. (There was a temptation to note, of course, that the terrorist acts of 9/11, while organized and directed from overseas, had actually taken their victims on American soil.) The strategic planners endorsed it in the report they issued at the end of my first year. Admissions staff saw that it would give them a new selling point. Most of the alumnae and alumni (as this former women’s college required itself to describe them) seemed to like it, too.

It was only in certain corners of the faculty that concerted opposition to mandatory study abroad emerged. Despite my previous years as dean of the School of Communication at American University, I was still a journalist at heart and impatient with the concept of academic shared governance, where, as far as I could tell, the goal was to talk all new ideas to death. But it did not take long for even this non-academic to realize that, like it or not, no such major new curricular requirement could meaningfully take effect without the cooperation of the faculty. So, naturally, we named a committee—the “curriculum transformation group,” or CTG—to meet over the summer and weigh the pros and cons of taking what was being described in some circles as a bold and risky step. Actually, as it turned out, we established three consecutive, annual, summertime CTGs, to think things through over and over again.

I still have little knowledge of what was said behind closed doors during faculty discussions of the issue, but I do have some favorite vignettes from the protracted debate that occasionally broke out in public: On one occasion, a well-regarded faculty member who had been teaching mathematics for decades blurted out, “What’s international about math?” (One of her prized students had recently returned from studying higher math in Budapest.) On another, a senior professor of biology declared in a faculty meeting, “Biology is biology,” and said he saw nothing much to be learned from the way people in other countries teach it or study it; American methods are just fine—indeed, the best, he observed. A junior member of the psychology department, in a moment of boldness and bravery, commented that she found this to be a narrow, ignorant point of view, and the conversation went downhill from there. It was a good thing I had a few other initiatives, such as the funding and construction of a 103,000-square-foot new library and central gathering spot on campus—Goucher’s Athenaeum—to keep me busy.

Finally, a daring chair of the faculty, sensing the pressure growing within the college community to get on with the matter, took an open vote, and the motion to require study abroad, as part of reformulated liberal education requirements, passed by a large margin. The opposition was startled to discover that we intended to put it into immediate effect; other dilatory tactics would not work. Study abroad would become a feature of every Goucher undergraduate experience, beginning with all students who entered in the fall of 2006. And we took a faculty member’s inspired suggestion to add a small, competitive “International Scholars Program”—for students from any major to spend at least a full semester abroad.

Why a Requirement?

My objectivity may be open to question, but by every standard measure, universal study abroad was an instant success at Goucher. Prospective students and their families responded positively to the change. Perhaps it was a coincidence, but the college welcomed its largest- ever first-year class in the fall of 2006. In several subsequent surveys, upwards of 75 percent of new students said the requirement was one of the primary reasons they had chosen to attend. Indeed, for this and other reasons, applications and enrollments increased steadily over time. When I stepped down as president in June 2014, Goucher had about 20 percent more undergraduate students than it had in 2001, when I arrived. By the usual indices of test scores and high school GPAs, the students generally came with better credentials— and often with prior international interests and experiences.

Students from all demographic groups, majors, and academic profiles reported great satisfaction with their studies and other experiences abroad. As many as 25 percent of those back from their first such opportunity began immediately to plan to go abroad again, many while still in college— hence our goofy statistic that 114 or 118 or 125 percent (depending upon the year) of Goucher students study abroad.

Conventional wisdom has it that brief overseas experiences, like Goucher’s ICAs, are not particularly meaningful. But having participated in three of them myself—in India, Honduras, and Cuba—I found that to be demonstrably untrue. To be sure, a semester in Copenhagen or Prague, Chengdu or Rio, could be more significant and profound, but a first international exposure, especially for students from economically disadvantaged or overly protective backgrounds, could have a powerful, eye-opening impact. Many parents, at first reluctant to permit their children to go overseas for an extended period, changed their minds after seeing the results of a short-term program.

What is the advantage of requiring an overseas experience of undergraduates? Anecdotally, our students said that while they realized they might be able to arrange to study abroad at almost any college or university these days, they felt more supported in their plan to do so at Goucher; there was no risk that they would feel like oddballs for wanting to go far away, as some of their friends reported feeling at other colleges. At receptions I hosted in my home on campus every semester for returning students, and in other venues like the dining halls, the students eagerly exchanged stories and impressions and educated each other about where they had been. When some of their professors seemed reluctant to broach international issues in the classroom, they tended to force the matter themselves and brought the lessons of their experience into the discussion.

One can only assume this sophistication will have a lasting impact on their job choices and their careers, not to mention their personal and intellectual lives and, by extension, those of their families and their friends. And who can say what the long-term effect might be on the image and reputation of the United States around the world, as more and more American college-age students go abroad?

In addition, the requirement produced constructive pressure on some faculty members to become more international in their own outlook. A few who were initially skeptical, or at least quizzical, took the plunge to lead ICAs and became immediate converts. They, too, spoke of “life-changing” experiences overseas.

Obviously, there was still plenty to work on at the time I stepped down as president. Money remains a problem, for individual students and for the college. From the outset, we offered a stipend to every student for her or his first overseas experience, and students on need- or merit-based scholarships were permitted to take their aid with them overseas for a semester; by now, specialpurpose supplementary scholarship funds are also available to subsidize costs for those of limited means. Not surprisingly, the overall cost to Goucher of study abroad remains a modest drain on net tuition revenue. (Considerably more than it would be if the experience were recommended, but not required? Hard to say, but unlikely.)

Some students returning from abroad, especially in potentially stressful settings like crisis-ridden Rwanda and Thailand, reported experiencing a severe reverse culture shock. They had trouble dealing with mundane everyday issues back on campus after being swept up in societies that had suffered extreme trauma and dealt with life-and-death matters in recent years. At their suggestion, Goucher established a new theme-housing option called “the globe” for students who want to think and talk about how study abroad has affected them psychologically and for others who are feeling anxiety about an impending foray abroad.

No clear assessment tool has yet been found or created to measure quantitatively the outcomes of study abroad. But a new software program called the “pocket anthropologist,” developed by a long-time adjunct faculty member at Goucher, shows promise in helping students and the college understand the qualitative impact on individuals.

Has universal study abroad achieved its original goal of making Goucher clearly distinctive among liberal-arts colleges? That Princeton Review, for example, says Goucher has the “most popular” study-abroad program in the country, among other kudos, would seem to support the notion. Nonetheless, a small faction of faculty members has tried occasionally over the years to rescind the requirement— on the theory that faculty salaries could be increased significantly if less money were spent on the program—but they have attracted fewer votes each time. (In fact, now that study abroad is such an important part of Goucher’s identity, to take the requirement away could have the opposite effect: reducing enrollments and hence threatening salaries and even faculty positions.) My successor, with an eye on more profound curricular changes, initially seemed to downplay the significance of the requirement; as he came to understand its importance to students and their families, however, his enthusiasm grew. Now there are posters and maps on campus touting its importance.

Rethinking Strategies and Tactics

Since stepping down from the presidency, I have thought hard about whether I would have proceeded differently on the study-abroad requirement, if I had it to do over again. These are my conclusions:

  • Given the enthusiasm of Goucher’s trustees for the mandatory study-abroad program, I wish I had invited them to participate selectively in—or even colead— some of the ICAs. Such exposure would have helped them spread the word.
  • I would seek advance funding, presumably from a higher-education-oriented foundation, for the early stages of the initiative, perhaps to cover several years’ worth of student stipends and to send faculty members abroad to prepare them to lead ICAs. (We did the latter, to a lesser extent than desirable, with private donations.) This might have neutralized some of the faculty opposition, especially on financial grounds, and would have built a larger corps of natural supporters.
  • I would worry less over whether Goucher’s initiative was the “first” or the “only” such study-abroad requirement in the country. We wasted energy tilting at windmills over this point. A smaller, religiously based institution in the Midwest claimed to have had such a program ahead of Goucher (although its website listed several ways that students could be excused from the obligation to go abroad). Some specialized units within large universities—e.g., business schools—pointed out that they also required study abroad or overseas internships, and a small Buddhist university in California (with only a single major) asserted that it had the idea first. We would have been better off had we arrived sooner at the simple formulation that we were the first “traditional liberal-arts college” to adopt universal study abroad.
  • I would move more intentionally to tie the requirement to the recruitment of a larger group of international students. The fact that all Goucher students study abroad makes them distinctly eager and well-prepared to welcome peers from other cultures and societies.
  • As overbearing as we at Goucher might have felt at times in talking about study abroad, I would do even more to promote the college’s decision and its resulting distinctiveness. Because some of us tired of the subject, perhaps worrying that we were boring our higher education colleagues, we did not spread the word as far and as fast as we might have. It’s not easy to get the appropriate constituencies to pay attention to such an important change in an era of electronic information overload.

All in all, however, the concept worked and achieved its aims, not only for the students but also the institution. The fact is there is no mistaking Goucher for someplace else, and in today’s hectic and confusing college marketplace, that is an important advantage.

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