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Colleges Emphasizing Experiences Beyond The Classroom


The days of learning by simply sitting in a classroom and hitting the books are dwindling as colleges are placing increased emphasis on student travel.

For many years, universities have been offering study abroad programs partnering with international colleges in which students spend a semester living and studying away from their home campus. But with the increasing costs of higher education, short-term trips tied to a specific course or service project are growing in popularity. Professor Mara Dodge teaches in the history department at Westfield State University. Later this semester she and Professor Valerie Haskins of SUNY Adirondack are leading a group of 14 students from five colleges to study history in London and Istanbul.

“I think that travel in general and international travel in particular is absolutely essential as education for the modern world and global society that we live in,” said Dodge.

With the help of student leaders, schools like Williams College have also organized service trips for students during their upcoming spring break to volunteer and learn about medicine, culture and government in foreign countries and the Navajo Nation in Arizona. Also growing in popularity are “gap years” in which students either take time off to break up their high school-to-college transition or to unwind after college graduation. About 40,000 Americans participated in gap year programs in 2013, an increase of nearly 20 percent since 2006, according to data gathered by a nonprofit called the American Gap Year Association. Jason Sarouhan serves on the agency’s board of advisors and works out of Northampton as the vice president of The Center for Interim Programs. Feeling stressed out and overwhelmed after his junior year of college, he took a gap year to travel to Madagascar and Uganda. He says students today are ready for the academic challenges of college but not the independence that comes with it.

“Yes I was prepared academically to do well in school and the yet the responsibility and the independence were a complete shock to my system,” Sarouhan said. “I think a lot of students really struggle. They flounder. In today’s workforce and the market of just being out in the world as an adult, having a good grounding before you go on to school is one of the things a lot of students and parents are really looking for.”

The students going to England and Turkey with Professor Dodge had to come up with $4,000 for two weeks of travel. She says for many of the students at state universities like Westfield, finances are a major roadblock.

“As colleges have gotten more and more expensive and as students are taking on more and more debt, that freedom that they might have had 10, 20, 30 years ago to feel that they could go off and travel, do an internship, work abroad or volunteer opportunities…so many of them feel that they have to start paying back student debt within six months or starting six months after graduation,” explained Dodge.  

Under recent programs, universities like Tufts and Princeton are offering admitted students financial aid to take a gap year before they start taking college courses or to travel in the middle of their college career. Sarouhan says he thinks programs like these will become more numerous over the next decade.

“These experiences…the universities are seeing the outcomes,” Sarouhan said. “They’re seeing how students who have taken gap time in advance of arriving at school are arriving mature, focused and independent. They’re matriculating in four years in incredibly high numbers. Universities are seeing the value that if they can help support students to do this…which gap time doesn’t have to be a bank-breaking experience, but it certainly does cost some money. If they can help support that, then ultimately it’s going to allow a much wider swath of students to participate.”

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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