What I Learned from Managing a First year, First Semester Program for 11 Years

By February 27, 2018 No Comments

In 2003, I attended a NAFSA conference workshop highlighting a first year study abroad program. Our office had just been designated as the ‘study abroad office’ so I was relatively new and perhaps, a bit naive, but totally inspired by the idea. So, with the assistance, guidance and support of my director at the time, I began to plan and develop a model that I thought would work well on our campus. We spent the fall semester of that same year exploring options, designing the model and ultimately visiting the campus of our host institution. In the Spring of 2004, we began marketing and recruiting for the program with a planned launch of Fall 2004. And, we did it!

Since then, here are just some things I learned about first year programming:

Students are self-selecting. They know it’s for them or it’s not. Their reasons for participating vary but a common theme is that they haven’t been excited or inspired by their options at that point. Maybe they’ve been accepted by a number of colleges, maybe they’re not committed to a major or career plan, or maybe they want to take a break from school and travel. One family told me that when their son received information about our program, it was the first time they didn’t have an argument at the dinner table when discussing his future!
Families are supportive. I work at a university with a high percentage of first generation students. If college was unfamiliar territory, just imagine sending your son or daughter to another country for their first semester! But, families were remarkably encouraging and supportive. Parents often mentioned that they wanted their son or daughter to have an opportunity that they hadn’t had. And, it wasn’t unusual to hear that grandparents and other family members contributed funding to help ensure this become a reality for their student.
Location is important. The perception of safety and proximity was critical. We chose Ireland. Not only do we have an extremely high percentage of heritage students in our student population, but, as I often pointed out to families, from Boston you could get to Ireland in less time than you could if you were flying to California.
An accompanying faculty provides enormous value. Our model included an accompanying faculty who taught two home university courses. This had many advantages compared to other first year programs. It established a strong connection with the home university. The faculty interacted with the students at least 3-4 times per week so had regular check-ins. The faculty lived in a designated apartment in the same area as the students (parents particularly like this). And, it gave the home university an international opportunity for its faculty.
Relationship with the host university.I found this to be crucial. We worked with a provider to select an international partner who would be a good fit for us. And, it was. We met with the host university staff in person 2-3 times a year. We accompanied our students and faculty during their first week at the home university, participated in their orientation, and re-visited for a mid-semester check-in, bringing our next year’s faculty to get a lay of the land, so to speak. The host university participated in our home university orientation program for all new students and their families.
How do students adjust upon re-entry? This is perhaps the most common question asked by students and their families. There is no doubt that there is a period of adjustment. But, remember, the student isn’t navigating this on their own. They have 20 (our enrollment cap) other students who have shared this unique and bonding experience, who are also adjusting. And, when you think about it, if these students have been successful in another culture, the odds are in their favor that they can more easily adjust to a US college campus.
Impact on student success. So many students who participated in this program became leaders on campus upon their return. They became involved in student clubs and government, global ambassadors for our international student services, and advocates for study abroad. Each year our university distinguishes our top 20 seniors and it is not surprising to find 1-2 of our program alums on this list! And, their graduate rates significantly surpass those of their cohort group. Granted, as I said at the outset, they are a self-selecting group, but I would argue that it’s still relevant to both recruitment and retention.

Finally, in all my years of running this program, I have never once had a student say that they wished they hadn’t done it (this excludes the 3 who were homesick during the first week and returned…..a surprisingly low number in and of itself). Similar to upper class student feedback, they often cite independence, confidence and clarification of career goals. How empowering to feel that at the beginning of your college career!

By: Deb Regan, IEP Campus Coordinator – Plymouth State University