For years I’ve been telling my students to study abroad. Now I’m about to do it myself. The prospect is thrilling – and a little daunting. My horoscope in today’s Washington Post got it right: “It’s a blank canvas of pure potentiality, and there was never anything so beautiful.”
When you read this I’ll be trading dollars for euros, stuffing just a few more things in my suitcase, and testing my Skype connection one last time in preparation for a Saturday flight to Portugal. For the next three months, I’ll be a visiting professor in the Department of Philosophy and Pedagogy at Universidade de ‘Evora located in the Alentejo region east of Lisbon. This is an adventure that will test my inner control freak. I am going alone to a country where I’ve never been, know no one, and – despite my best efforts over the last several months – barely know the language. My host colleagues seem welcoming and gracious, but are not able to tell me what I’ll be teaching or when. Working at ‘Evora will be a far cry from the well-oiled institutional machine that is Millersville University. I’m looking forward to the unpredictability, to the pure potentiality.
As I was gearing up to go, Millersville’s revised Mission Statement showed up in my email box. I read the statement with interest, scanning it for references that supported my commitment to study abroad and my own new venture, and I came away oddly disappointed. Study abroad opportunities, the International Studies major and minor, and programs like the Shanghai Executive Training Program, which brings international visitors to campus have expanded steadily. Still, the impact of those efforts seems not to have altered the campus identity in any appreciable way.
There are references in the mission statement to “diversity of people, cultures, ideas and viewpoints”, but these come in the context of describing an “inclusive campus community.” Principles of inertia – resistances to change that are curricular, economic, and personal in origin – keep MU students in place.
Our overloaded curriculum requirements make it very difficult to spend a semester abroad without stalling progress toward graduation. A few majors (specifically, the foreign language majors) offer exceptions to this rule. However, your typical biology major or BSE social studies major or business major who tries to study abroad finds it very difficult to make curricular ends meet.
My solution? Simple. Any student who spends a semester on a different continent or in a country where a different language is spoken can use that semester to cross off any five gen ed requirements. I’m sure that proposal will rile those for whom distribution and skills requirements are sacrosanct, but I assert that the “off plantation” experience is that important and that life changing.
Sometimes the ends that don’t meet are financial. Spending a semester abroad – or even taking an international study course – has its costs. In the face of ever climbing tuition and room and board prices, finding a couple thousand dollars more may seem insurmountable. It may seem so, but it’s not. Prioritizing and borrowing will be necessary (as I’m discovering myself), but the payoff is, as the advertisement suggests, “priceless.”
The biggest hurdle to leaving the country is often neither curricular, nor financial, but personal. We are comfortable and not easily pushed out of that comfort zone. We are, too often, risk averse. There is no cure for that except the reminder that “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” In the end, we are all at Millersville to grow. Growing may mean leaving, at least for a time.
So I will be writing from Portugal this semester, from my personal place of altered inertia, in a modest attempt to get you thinking about doing the same. Each installment will be a similarly modest attempt to alter how we think about ourselves at Millersville – as a place where “study abroad” is a feature of one’s education more often than not. For now, at least, we won’t mess with the mission statement.
Dr. Barb Stengel has been a member of the educational foundation since 1985. She writes “Uncommon Sense” for The Snapper.