For more than 20 years, the U.S. Departments of State and Education have highlighted the value of study abroad and attracting students from other countries to the U.S. during International Education Week (IEW), which this year is being held November 13-17.
At Hollins, the observance doesn’t begin and end with IEW. “We don’t really celebrate just one week,” says Ramona Kirsch, Ed.D., director of the university’s Global Learning Hub (GLO). “We have activities throughout the year and typically in November we celebrate ‘International Education Month.’” GLO and other departments across campus sponsor events and information sessions throughout the month that include study abroad lunch and learn programs, foreign language conversation tables at meals, international film screenings, and opportunities to enjoy global cuisine.
Study Abroad Changes Lives
Hollins’ study abroad and international internship programs enjoyed a very successful 2022-23 academic year. Eighty-five undergraduate students (68% of whom received financial assistance totaling over $118,000) traveled to 15 different countries around the world. Two new faculty-led programs in Ecuador and Scotland were introduced. In addition, 22 students from Hollins’ M.F.A. in dance program studied in Bulgaria, the program’s first abroad trip since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Internships were completed in England, France, and Scotland; a new partnership agreement was established with Nairobi’s Kenyatta University to develop a new faculty-led program in gender and women’s studies and public health; and GLO is working with faculty to develop new programs in China, Egypt, South Korea, and Eastern Europe.
“Studying abroad is a life-changing experience,” Kirsch explains. “Mark Twain was correct when he wrote, ‘Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.’ Becoming immersed in another culture and engaging with a diverse array of populations promotes a deeper understanding of and appreciation for humanity.” She cites a study from the Institute for International Education (IIE), which reveals that over 70% of students reported their study abroad experiences significantly helped develop their intercultural skills, flexibility and adaptability, self-awareness, curiosity and confidence.
“The Consortium for Analysis of Student Success through International Education found that those who study abroad were 6% more likely to graduate in four years and had an average GPA that was .16 higher than those who did not study abroad,” she adds. “Study abroad can be particularly impactful for first-generation students and underrepresented minorities. Those who study abroad are 11% more likely to graduate in four years and earn a .12 higher GPA than similar students who did not study abroad.”
Dealing with Economic Obstacles, Mental Health Concerns, and World Events
Kirsch is nevertheless keenly aware of the challenges facing international education today. Among the biggest is economic inequality. “One of the most commonly cited reasons students do not study abroad is a lack of funding. As a result, many study abroad program participants can easily look quite homogeneous. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds and identities are often not able to participate in these global experiences.”
One of the initiatives that is increasing funding for BIPOC and underrepresented students to study abroad is a new scholarship created by the Hollins University Black Alumnae/i Association. The IIE also awarded the university its Passport Grant, which in 2022-23 enabled 25 first-year Hollins students to obtain a U.S. passport. The U.S. Department of State’s Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program provides assistance to students of limited financial means to study or intern abroad. “For the past few years, Hollins has had a good track record of students receiving this competitive scholarship and currently we have a student studying in Japan for the entire 2023-24 academic year who received the Gilman,” Kirsch says.
Another challenge involves mental health issues, which have risen dramatically among young people in the post-COVID environment. “Students do bring this challenge with them while studying abroad in host countries, often meeting language and cultural barriers in the process.” Kirsch states that home and host institutions are addressing mental health concerns in a variety of ways. “All students studying abroad with Hollins partner programs must go through a mandatory six-week predeparture course that includes a mental health module. The class provides a toolkit for students should they encounter mental health issues and brings in Hollins’ health and counseling staff for further discussion. While they are abroad, the GLO office reaches out to each student directly to ensure they have all the resources they need to maintain their health. When students return home from studying abroad, they also must take a reentry class that includes a module on ‘reverse culture shock’ and the impact it might have on mental health. ”
Additionally, Kirsch cites the reality of global events that can negatively impact a student’s desire to study abroad. “Whether it’s climate change, political unrest, a pandemic, or other crises, many students and their parents are becoming increasingly concerned with the safety and security of studying abroad and the ability for students to remain healthy during their experience.” To address those concerns, she says the GLO office continuously monitors the CDC and the U.S. Department of State’s travel sites and assesses the safety of all programs before sending students abroad. “All of our program partners have comprehensive safety and security protocols and procedures that keep Hollins abreast of any changes. The predeparture course also includes a module of safety and security that provides students resources and small group work to discuss what steps one might take in various emergency scenarios. There is power in the mental rehearsal!” In addition, Hollins requires that all students traveling abroad must sign up for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, a free U.S. Department of State service that provides important information from U.S. embassies in host countries about safety, travel, and health.
Outreach and Collaboration: Keys to Success
To encourage participation and support students who wish to take part in international education programs, Kirsch’s mantra is simple and straightforward: “Outreach, outreach, outreach and collaboration, collaboration, collaboration.” To ensure students know about study abroad opportunities and funding, GLO sponsors information sessions (including virtual sessions with program partners), maintains an active social media presence, and publishes a monthly campus newsletter. This fall, GLO is offering more than 20 events across campus in addition to individual advising and also boasts five Global Ambassadors, “students who have returned from study abroad and want to share their experiences, promote study abroad, assist future program participants, and host events to raise global awareness,” Kirsch says.
GLO also works with constituencies across campus including academic advisors; Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; Housing and Residence Life; Scholarships and Financial Assistance; Student Success, Well-being and Belonging; and Career and Life Design to ensure students understand all facets of study abroad. The office also seeks input from partner organizations to ensure continuous improvement in all programs.
A Vibrant International Community on Campus
International students play an essential role in diversifying the campus community. In Fall 2022, 74 active international students from 25 different countries were enrolled at Hollins, and 21 international students graduated in May 2023 (11 of those graduates have gone on to graduate school).
“While Hollins has hosted international students for years, in 2023, we created a new International Student Engagement office that works across campus to prepare for and accommodate our international students and ensure they thrive,” Kirsch states. “Our commitment doesn’t just entail recruitment and enrollment, but also important activities during their studies such as internships that prepare them for life after graduation. We encourage them to share their cultural heritage with the campus and surrounding communities and become involved with campus clubs that promote global programming.”
Kirsch says international students share many of the same needs as their domestic counterparts, particularly when it comes to mental health support. However, “different cultural perspectives on asking for help along with language challenges can add a level of complexity for international students. That’s why sharing information on the importance of good mental health and removing any stigma begins with international student orientation and continues throughout their time at Hollins. Our Health and Counseling Center offers multiple information sessions and events for all students, faculty, and staff to convey a clear and consistent message: It’s okay to seek help.”
Kirsch notes that financial issues can also affect international students. “It’s important to stay aware of the possible fiscal barriers for financial students. Volatile world economic markets can increase anxiety for families and negatively impact the retention of international students.”
One way Hollins alleviates those concerns applies to every international student who is accepted. “Each student receives a generous International Friendship Grant that assists them throughout their study at Hollins,” Kirsch says. “In addition, there are multiple streams of funding to help support international students in special programs across campus.”
Kirsch emphasizes that international students’ engagement with the university doesn’t end upon graduation. “We make every effort to welcome them as mentors to new international students. Indeed, international alumnae/i are extremely active in supporting incoming students.”
Hollins’ international students webpage provides further information on campus life, a four-year plan for success, FAQs, and other important resources.