Elmhurst College In Depth

Where in the World Will You Go?

For Elmhurst students, the answer is “almost anywhere.” Study abroad is taking more students to more countries for more varied experiences than ever before. It’s expanding the campus to embrace the world.

When Michael Manocchio arrived at the International House at Payap University in Thailand last August to begin a semester of study abroad, he found some of his fellow international students already settled in, and already complaining. The problem was with their accommodations. They were too new, too clean, and too air conditioned. In short, the International House struck some of the students as too comfortable.

“They didn’t want to be living in luxury,” Manocchio recalls. The new residents of the International House had traveled to Thailand from Australia, Hong Kong, and all corners of the United States. For most of them, the whole point of studying in another country and immersing themselves in another culture was to move outside their comfort zones. How do you do that, they wanted to know, with the air conditioning running day and night?

It turned out to be possible. During their time in Thailand, each of the students in International House found plenty of time for discomfort—and for memorable experiences. Michael Manocchio, for example, spent a week in a remote village in the mountainous north of Thailand working with Peace Corps volunteers as they built a dam to protect the village from frequent floods. Later, the 2008 Elmhurst graduate did a stint at a Buddhist university at Chedi Luang, teaching English to saffron-robed monks. He visited refugee camps along the Burmese border, where thousands had fled to escape political unrest in Myanmar, and where Manocchio spent time in a workshop where laborers crafted prosthetic limbs for the many refugees injured by landmines. And in between tours and service projects around Thailand, Manocchio took four courses in Thai culture and language at Payap University in Chiang Mai.
The experience was no less profound, Manocchio says now, for the respites of air-conditioned comfort he enjoyed back at International House.
 “The trip definitely changed me,” he says. “Probably in ways that I don’t really understand yet.”

Study abroad is an increasingly popular choice for college students like Michael Manocchio. According to the Institute of International Education, the number of Americans studying abroad has grown 150 percent in the last decade. The range of experiences open to them also has expanded dramatically. Not long ago, international study typically meant a junior-year excursion for foreign-language majors to Rome or Vienna or some other Western cultural capital. Today the options are a lot more plentiful; American students can take courses in about 100 countries on all seven continents. They can spend a few weeks or an entire year abroad. Many study abroad more than once.

Increasingly, American students volunteer their talents and labor in hospitals, high schools, and housing sites in their host countries. For these students, study abroad is more about service than sightseeing. At Elmhurst, the study abroad and service-learning programs are closely aligned within the Center for Professional Excellence.

Service-learning aims to enrich academic experiences with instructive work addressing social problems. It has become a prominent component in many of Elmhurst’s study-abroad offerings. Students and faculty regularly travel to India, South Africa, Australia, and other countries where the College has cultivated relationships with institutions of higher learning. Many students both study and work in local communities; Elmhurst students have worked with advocacy groups for the disabled in Jamaica and have researched day-care centers in South Africa.

If part of the objective of study abroad is to allow students to encounter another culture and gain a significant understanding of it, then service-learning, with its emphasis on tackling real-world social needs, fits nicely into the experience. “You get to work within the culture and get to know the people,” says Manocchio. “It’s the perfect way to study abroad.”

At Elmhurst, the blending of study abroad and service-learning is “an area in which we’ve really distinguished ourselves,” says Alzada Tipton, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty. “It’s not your regular old study abroad.”

Within the past decade, more than 1,200 Elmhurst students have taken part in an international study program. Up to 150 students travel to other countries to study during a typical academic year. “Elmhurst currently hosts international education programs in 44 different countries in North America, South America, Asia, Europe, Africa, and Australia,” the College web site informs students. “But if you want to blaze a new trail, just let us know—we can probably get you there.”

Most students study abroad during January Term, says Wally Lagerwey, a professor of foreign languages and literatures and the director of international education. One of the biggest changes in the field, he adds, is that students are mapping out their travel plans much earlier, sometimes before they even enroll in college.

Some students take travel-based courses led by Elmhurst faculty. Cultural and Linguistic Immersion in Spain, for example, takes students in January Term to Madrid, Segovia, El Escorial, Avila, Toledo, Sevilla, and Granada. Celebrating the Literacies of West Africa, scheduled for 2009, will take students to Senegal to study language and culture through music, literature, and film.

Other students choose from a broader menu of options by enrolling with one of the College’s affiliate programs or partner institutions around the world. Elmhurst belongs to a consortium of schools that work together to expand study-abroad opportunities for their collective student bodies. Next year, for example, Elmhurst students will have the option to take an environmental studies class offered by the College of St. Catherine that travels to Antarctica.

Why so much interest in study abroad? Ask students and they will talk about their interest in seeing the world, learning about other cultures, seeking out new experiences. Ask educators and they will point to research that shows the intellectual and developmental benefits of such experiences. According to the National Survey of Student Engagement, students who go abroad report greater personal and intellectual growth than their peers who stay close to campus.

The age of globalization also has brought a growing awareness of the value of study abroad. Competing in a world economy, the reasoning goes, requires graduates who can thrive across borders and cultures. “Employers say they are looking for the ability to work in a global environment,” says Dean Tipton. “Studying in another country helps students realize that the U.S. is not the whole world.”

Of course, the more students and their parents hear about the benefits of studying abroad, the more it becomes a must-have credential for high-achieving students. “We are a credentialing society, so we do get students who say, ‘I need this on my résumé,” Lagerwey says. “But study abroad is about much more than that. Ideally, the student is challenged on many levels, made to rethink things. This is their chance to discover a world out there that they might otherwise not have known.”

For more and more students, opportunities for international study rank high on the list of criteria to consider when choosing a college. Carissa Cheney, now a senior, knew she wanted to study abroad even before she enrolled at Elmhurst. Interested in a career in health care, she looked for a college that could accommodate her two related goals: to study in another country and to stay on track for graduation by taking courses that would count toward her biology major. “International study was one of the things I liked about Elmhurst,” she says.

Once she settled on studying in Australia, Elmhurst faculty and staff worked with a program called Australearn to enroll Cheney at the University of Melbourne for the fall term of her junior year. At Melbourne, Cheney took a full slate of classes, including biology and neuroscience. She also volunteered at the Royal Women’s Hospital and at a Melbourne nursing home. Observing the everyday business of health care in another country gave her a new perspective on American-style medicine, she says.

Cheney also found time to dive into student life, Australia-style. Some students at her residential college persuaded her to join their Australian-rules football team for a weekend tournament, giving her a chance to learn the hard way about the notoriously hard-hitting game. “It’s pretty rough,” she says. “I’ve got the bruises to prove it.” 

Cheney chose to study in Australia partly because she didn’t want to deal with language barriers. But Lagerwey notes that students need not limit themselves to English-speaking countries. Even in some countries where English is not widely spoken, many colleges offer international courses in English.

Educating students about the range of possibilities for study abroad is one of the chief tasks for Lagerwey and the international study advisors in the Center for Professional Excellence. To help students identify the overseas option that will fit them best, Lagerwey says he tries to get a sense of each student’s language skills, academic orientation, and personal interests. He urges students to consider a short-term experience abroad as a freshman or sophomore, perhaps during the summer or January Term. Once they have had a taste of international study, they will be more ready for a longer experience as juniors.

To prime students for their time abroad, the College offers a course called Preparing for International Study. It covers everything from public transportation to personal safety to matters of intercultural etiquette.  

Elmhurst faculty and staff acknowledge that study abroad presents them with particular problems and challenges. Some students may see their time in other countries as a liberation from underage drinking laws back home. Another constant concern is the need to balance the students’ desire to explore other cultures with the need to look after the students’ safety. Finally, some students need reminding that they cannot check the College’s high academic expectations at the border. “We emphasize over and over that this is a serious academic undertaking, not a vacation,” says Lagerwey.

Dean Tipton says the College works hard to ensure that the courses offered in other countries are rigorous and demanding, whether they’re taught by Elmhurst faculty or offered in partnership with other programs. “International study courses get as much, if not more, scrutiny and faculty review as other courses,” she says.

Perhaps the most daunting task facing administrators is convincing students who are interested in study abroad that the option is not priced beyond their ability to pay. Lagerwey notes that students who sign up for courses with one of Elmhurst’s international partners take their financial aid packages with them. They may also apply for scholarships to further defray the costs of travel and living abroad. “It’s a challenge to get students to understand that this isn’t just for rich kids,” says Tipton.

This spring, the College began work to raise a new endowed fund to support off-campus study for students. “There is no question that time spent abroad enriches the educational experience of our students,” says President Emeritus Bryant L. Cureton. “International study opportunities offer an increased understanding of the self and encourage an informed appreciation for others on a global scale. Our long-term goal is to enable every student to have at least one international experience as part of his or her undergraduate education. This fund will help us move toward that goal.” 

It’s a goal Michael Manocchio can endorse from experience. “Studying abroad takes guts and sometimes it takes money,” he says, “but with financial aid, it doesn’t have to be crazily expensive.”

The experience can be priceless, he adds. Manocchio recalls his first meeting with the monks who became his English-language students at the Buddhist university at Chedi Luang. Everything about them—from their shaved heads and eyebrows to their calm, meditative aura—seemed at first a little exotic to him. “But as we got to know one another, it became clear that they were a lot like us,” he says. “They were our age, they wanted to have fun, wanted to make friends. They just happened to be monks.”

Later, once Manocchio had completed his courses and service work, the time came for him to make the long flight back from Bangkok to the U.S. He eventually found himself in a terminal at Los Angeles International Airport, surrounded by crowds of agitated people talking fast into their cell phones.  “I knew I was back in the United States,” he deadpans. “And I knew I had come back a little changed.”

To learn more about the College’s new endowed fund to support
off-campus study for students, please call Scott LaMorte ’95, Senior Development Officer, at (630) 617-3034.

Photo by Amy LeFurgy

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