Leading a study abroad program has always been a dream of mine. This dream was instilled in me when I was teaching English as a foreign language online. I did this for years to get my way through library school and even after to help support myself alongside my part-time library gigs. The conversations I was able to have with students from all over the world inspired me and gave me hope that I could combine my love for travel and culture with librarianship and education.
When I arrived at Wake, it seemed like a potential reality. I realized this through my participation in WISE a few months after starting my job. I received a grant to pay for one of the pre-conferences and chose one that was on leading study abroad programs – it turns out that one of our own colleagues from the Global Programs co-led this session. We then got to know each other and the rest is history. That’s not to say it wasn’t a long trip.
The great demand
First and foremost, I thought I wouldn’t be able to run a study abroad program without a “real” faculty member. (Is it just me, or do non-tenured library teachers often feel that other members of the institution don’t see them as “real” teachers?) one of these programs before. Was it even possible? I was also terrified of asking my boss – even though I’m in a great situation where I have the coolest and most supportive boss – I was just irrationally afraid to express my dream to out loud and be knocked down. This fear was rooted in previous unsuccessful experiences (in other workplaces) trying to come up with something new in the world of libraries – which I think may be a common root of fears among us librarians .
I started by asking a member of the entrepreneurship faculty to create a program with me. They agreed. BUT, soon after, they were asked to run a National Wake Study Abroad program and they couldn’t commit to doing a program with me as well. I panicked, but decided to ask World Programs if library teachers could run their own program. Amazingly, when you ask for things, you often get them done. Turns out Wake’s study abroad office is having a hard time finding faculty who can commit to and run these types of programs and they’ve taken on a library faculty member who runs one . It also turns out that my boss and the dean of the library were thrilled that I was leading the program. So, lesson learned: irrational fears are unnecessary obstacles to your dreams!
To do work
It turns out that at least at Wake, you not only have to design the program and get it approved, you also have to market the program, recruit the students, interview the students, and of course run the program. I inevitably had a lot of questions along the way, but often received answers like “every faculty member does it differently”. Although it was so nice to have this flexibility, it was sometimes scary! But, as I try to teach my students, I navigated ambiguity. In hindsight, I could have done a better job at this. I could have reached out to other professors who have run programs for advice or to find out how they do things. In place, I looked to my intuition, my expertise, and tried to feel comfortable with my choices. It worked for me, but it led to what now seems like unnecessary anxiety – so reach out and seek advice from others who have done this before if you are in this situation!
To make it even harder – which was actually a blessing in disguise – I had to do the job TWICE due to COVID. My goal was to lead this program in Spring 2021 and we all know how it went (borders closed due to COVID). I had already marketed, recruited, and built a list of interested students in Fall 2020 in preparation for Spring 2021. This marketing process involved creating a video about the trip to market on the college study website. Wake Abroad, holding an information session during the Abroad Fair virtual study, sending emails through relevant department administrators to be sent to students in those departments, and sending emails to previous students who I think might be interested. All this while remaining in regular communication with the students who have expressed an interest and encouraging them to complete their study abroad forms. The blessing in disguise here was that because I had to do this twice, I really had to practice, and therefore learn, how to do this. The second time, I did everything again, but this time in person. I marketed better (more flyers EVERYWHERE), recruited more students (30+) and was able to lead a successful trip with 11 students in the spring of 2022.
Teach the AKA class Lead the program
The program I ran was 2 weeks and 1.5 credits. As with all classes, you have to make sure the students get enough hours to earn the credits, so instead of cramming them all in for the 2 weeks abroad, I taught for 5 weeks on campus before departure. This did two things:
1. We were able to really focus on the concepts we were learning locally before focusing on a foreign city – giving students a point of reference
2. The students got to know each other and me before departure.
This course explored two rather “radical” ideas in librarianship and teaching: primary research and non-grading. This class focused on examining the entrepreneurial ecosystems of Winston Salem and Rotterdam with a flipped classroom method. In Canvas, students read and did secondary research. In class, they heard guest speakers from across the entrepreneurial ecosystem and practiced primary research skills of observation and interviewing. This course was based on reflective learning and allowed students to grade themselves. Although this posed some difficulties – it was one of my first times doing a ranking – I don’t think this class would have been as successful as it did the traditional way or even with spec ranking ( more on this in the last paragraph).
The hardest part of leading a study abroad class can be summed up in three words: logistics, life, and mindset. Logistics are difficult to plan and often just as difficult to execute despite having a well-established plan. Cultural differences made planning our itinerary difficult. Emails weren’t answered as quickly as they would have been in the US. The confirmations did not come so quickly. The understanding of what I was asking for may not have been communicated as well as I hoped. Getting a group of 11 students anywhere on time is as easy as babysitting. You can’t always plan these things!
Life is… well life. As an instructor, you have one, the students each have one, and the speakers at the organizations you hope to visit have one. I haven’t received full confirmation that we are going 100% overseas until around March 2022 due to new COVID variants, border restrictions, vaccination requirements, etc. For this reason, I had to keep planning my life in case I didn’t actually go. During the time we were abroad I was committed to a very important program that required my attention during my off hours – so I really had little to no downtime in Rotterdam. During the day, I led the route, and before or after our day’s adventures, I would participate in this program. The students lived their own lives – some of them were in summer school, some needed to start their internships or summer jobs, some had broken up with other important people and some had mental health issues. Some of the lecturers we had planned to visit fell ill unexpectedly, as did one of my students.
I ran this program within days of graduating – which was recommended by global programs. The students were DONE – especially after probably the strangest semester in Wake’s history (i.e. Weaver Fertilizer Plant Fire, rabid raccoons on campus, COVID, COVID and more COVID). Some of the students actually graduated before they came on the trip. For many of them, it was their first time abroad. The mood here is a holiday mood and it’s hard to get students to sit down and do homework, projects, etc. work – and it worked with some convincing – but there were many conversations about how I should change the assignments, should they do the assignments, etc., etc.
Would I change anything? Well no. Somehow we got through the unexpected and those moments made the trip more memorable.
The Big Questions
I’ve been asked the same questions over and over again: Was it worth it? & Would you do it again? 100% it was worth it, and 100% I would do it again. The reasoning for my answer is purely based on the relationships I was able to build with the students. Downgrading removed the traditional power dynamic between professor and student. We were able to see each other as equals, respect each other and learn from each other. This was the first time I was able to engage authentically with my students in my 3 years working at Wake Forest. Being abroad definitely added to the magic of everything. I hope I can share another experience with our students like this in the future!
Have you ever thought about doing a study abroad program? Or, did you run one? Share with us your thoughts and/or experience in the comments below!