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Study Abroad participation nearly triples

Lamar University’s rapidly growing Study Abroad Office nearly tripled its participation in the past year, and the Study Abroad Director Jeff Palis has high expectations for the 2016 academic year.

He is expanding the program to offer a greater variety of courses for all classifications of students from freshman to doctoral candidates as well as a wider availability of sessions throughout the year to accommodate students’ busy schedules. The organization is also working to lower costs and raise accessibility for all students. Palis and new coordinator Brittney Crossley are collaborating to organize the coming year’s events and get more students involved.

LU Study Abroad plans to offer 20 faculty-led programs in 2016, several of which are new. Thanks to the support of Jim Jordan, chair of Earth and Space Sciences, the program now includes a geology class in Iceland this year that will count toward the common core, and the university plans to make core credit possible for art in Paris and for literature in Japan as well.

Providing alternative time to study abroad has proven popular with many students, Palis said. Study Abroad will provide a winter break program to St. Lucia in for graduate studies in the mental health counseling program and two spring break programs: one in geography to Greece and the other in business to Costa Rica and Panama. These opportunities are offered in addition to study abroad opportunities during the summer terms, including the May Mini and the regular fall and spring semester.

Palis, who joined LU in September 2014, has added a new component to the university’s Study Abroad program: student exchange programs through partnerships with a number of overseas universities.

“Essentially these exchanges allow for LU students to enroll and earn credit towards their degree at LU while physically taking the courses abroad at a partner university. Robbie Clarke, a mechanical engineering major, is doing just that at the Seoul National University of Science and Technology this semester. Opportunities for semester exchange are growing by the week,” Palis said.

LU has already established a partnership with Zeppelin University in Germany and hopes to make an agreement soon with a business school in France and a top public university in Mexico, among others.

Lamar’s Study Abroad program seeks to meet the needs of a unique blend of students. Nationally, the largest numbers of American students studying abroad are undergrads traveling to Western Europe to study humanities and foreign language. At Lamar, the Study Abroad office recognizes that this model alone doesn’t represent the many students who work full-time and study in the STEM and professional fields at LU.

“We must offer a variety of programs in terms of location, academic focus, and duration to meet the needs of our students,” Palis said. “I think you can expect to see more study abroad opportunities for engineering majors, business majors, and students in the professional fields like nursing and education, and programs in new locations like Latin America, eastern Europe, and Africa - though we do have some amazing programs for 2016 in France, England, Spain, and Italy, too.”

The Study Abroad Office is also working to make study abroad a more feasible financial investment for all students. LU keeps programs affordable by travelling in off-peak times, planning and booking in-house rather than through a travel agency, and even staying in dorms or hostels to reduce hotel costs, Palis said. Furthermore, he supports an increase in the university’s financial assistance for Study Abroad to encourage even those who face economical challenges to take advantage of the opportunities. The low-cost Study Abroad fee, included in every student’s tuition, stands at two dollars per semester, and the proceeds are allotted to the university’s students participating in study abroad during the academic year. Palis hopes to see a modest increase in this fee to build the numbers and diversity of students LU helps to study abroad. This year, Lamar is able to offer each enrolled study abroad student a Study Abroad Fee Grant of approximately $500.

“We need to match our scholarship opportunities to the numbers of students going abroad. I’m going to offer a scholarship workshop for nationally-competitive grants like the Gilman and NSEP-Boren during International Education Week this November 16 to 20,” Palis says.

Accumulating evidence suggests that the benefits of Study Abroad are worth the costs. Students who have studied abroad report greater independence, self-confidence, and understanding about the global interconnectivity of economics, culture, and issues like migration and the environment when they return, Palis said. Moreover, a major study by the University System of Georgia shows that study abroad students have a higher retention rate, are more likely to graduate in four years, and have a higher graduating GPA than their classmates who stay stateside. Studying abroad can also be an advantage to students as they begin their job searches.

“I recently attended the 2015 Generation Study Abroad summit in Washington D.C. with HR specialists from companies like Ernst & Young and BP. Employers in all fields, not just Fortune 500 corporations, want to hire people who are adaptable, creative, and able to work with colleagues from diverse backgrounds,” Palis explains as he reveals his fall plans to build a new workshop to help students apply their experiences abroad to interview answers and grad school essays.

The newly strengthened Study Abroad Office hopes to reach as many students as possible to spread awareness of the opportunities available at the university and the unlimited benefits of pursuing international studies. Study Abroad has a long tradition at LU, but now, there with heightened support and enthusiasm from campus leadership and growing numbers of faculty who are getting involved with international education, Palis expects significant growth to continue.