From Australia to Argentina: Colgate Study Abroad Celebrates 70 Years

Recent surveys conducted by the Institute of International Education show that more American students are spending semesters overseas. In 2003, there was a 4.4 percent increase in the number of students studying abroad. However, here at Colgate, studying abroad is more than just part of a statistical percentage. Boasting one of the best off campus study programs for undergraduate institutions, Colgate offers 25 opportunities across the disciplines, including both domestic and international programs. As study abroad gains popularity, Colgate is considered a trendsetter and continues to maintain a distinctive and unique program that began 70 years ago.

Considered the oldest college study group in the nation’s capital, Colgate sent its first batch of political science students to Washington D.C. in 1935. This isn’t the only precedent that Colgate enjoys. In fact, Colgate is the sole undergraduate college in America that situates interested students for a whole semester in the laboratories of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The first study group abroad was sent to Argentina in 1954 and sponsored by the Romance Languages department. Riding on the success and excitement of the Argentina group, the 1960s witnessed explosions in the number of new offcampus opportunities. A number of Colgate’s “mainstay” abroad programs were instituted around this period, such as the London economics and history groups. This revolution in Colgate’s study abroad programs sent students all over the world to destinations as far and exotic as Nigeria. Also implemented were extended studies to Israel and Rome in 1998.

Extended studies were inspired by the University’s realization that study groups didn’t accompany the needs of all the students or departments. Smaller departments couldn’t sustain a long-term program and monetary issues were also a consideration. Although extended studies are a fairly recent addition, they aren’t without precedent. In the past, Colgate offered students the choice of a January term or “short term” program where students took one course for one month. Slowly, the short term has evolved into an extended study program where courses begin in the semester and finish somewhere else.

Of course, some destinations previously offered are no longer available. There are many reasons why some programs have been phased out while others have been initiated. Like any other organization, the programs evolve. Some programs simply may no longer be viable given the political context within the country and global relations outside the country. Another factor affecting the vitality of programs is the faculty.

Professors often have a say in which projects they would like to embark on and which projects would best suit the objectives of the concentration. Director of International Affairs, Ken Lewandoski, states: “One of the strengths of the Colgate program is that I don’t sit in this office and say ‘gee, wouldn’t it be cool if we went to Brazil this year?’ We leave that degree of freedom open for the professors and faculty who actually lead the groups because in many respects, they are more credible for making such decisions.” On the other hand, certain programs have secured their niche among the off-campus offerings. Programs such as the D.C. study group, the London Economics group and the N.I.H. groups continue to be an integral part of Colgate’s study abroad catalogue.

Colgate’s current success with off-campus studies is very much a reflection of its precocious participation in study abroad. Since 1935, applicants have generally been on the rise. Lewandoski mentions: “We are sending more students on study groups. The number of students going abroad has risen by half in past 10 years. Ten years ago there were around 230 students that went abroad, and there are over 400 now.” Although studying abroad is a national trend, Colgate remains distinctive in that 70 percent of graduating classes have an off-campus experience. On the other hand, the national average is 2 percent. Lewandoski feels that, “Many students begin to believe that off campus experience is a part of what it means to attend Colgate.”

However, over the course of its 70-year history, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Colgate’s programs. The study abroad applications took a significant drop after 9/11. Parents were especially apprehensive about letting their son or daughter attend study abroad groups. However, considering how recent the tragic event was, and looking at the number of students studying abroad the last few semesters, 9/11 can hardly be seen as a setback by any means.

To ensure the success of future off campus study opportunities, Lewandoski and faculty are working together to devise new programs. One thing that Colgate has never done is full exchanges of students with other schools. Recently, however, Colgate tried something new. Three University of Wallongong students came here for six weeks and three Colgate students attended Wallongong under the Andrew W. Mellon Grant to study new models in study abroad.

Furthermore, many of the projects involving future off-campus study groups will focus on giving more freedom and access to both faculty and students. As of now, some departments are too small to host a semester long off-campus program while other programs make it hard for students to fulfill the requirements of double majors. “These are some of the nicks and crannies that we hope will get smoothed out as the off-campus studies continue to change,” stated Lewandoski.

From a macroscopic perspective, Lewandoski mentions the importance of study abroad in today’s context: “I think there has been a recognition on the part of students and faculty that although we’re products of globalization, in the number of meanings that loaded term has, the world did not get any smaller. For a greater part, globalization has forced us to recognize the importance of understanding cultures and worlds different from our own.” Although Colgate is excellent in providing students and facultyopportunities normally reserved for larger universities, the essence of the study abroad programs is perhaps summed up best by Lewandoski: “As good as Colgate is, you can’t do everything here.”