The Returned Student and the Study Abroad Office
By Cheryl B. Lochner-Wright
More students; no more staff. If this sounds all too familiar, read on!
Returned study abroad students can be invaluable resources once they are back on campus. In these days of increasing interest in study abroad and limited resources on campus, finding ways to actively engage returnees in study abroad activities on campus is good for all involved.
There are a few things to keep in mind if you go the route of using student para-professionals in your office. One is that you will need to relinquish control in some areas. A student may not phrase things exactly as you would. She may emphasize certain aspects of the experience more than others. You must also be flexible. The occasional stressful week of papers and exams and the consequent requests to skip a meeting or miss scheduled work hours will occur. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, if you treat your student assistants as the future colleagues and professionals that they are, they will respond by taking their responsibilities seriously and acting professionally in return.
A Student Involvement Pyramid
Think in terms of a pyramid of student involvement opportunities. All returnees can be invited to put their names and contact information on a "general resource list." When prospective students stop in the office looking for first-hand information, they can write down names from the list and contact those students. The time commitment is minimal for office staff and for students.
The next involvement step is panel presentations, information tables, and small group discussions at orientation. Such opportunities for first-hand anecdotes are popular with prospective and returned students alike. For the student who wants to be more actively involved than just putting a name on a list but has limited time available, such one-time-only commitments are appealing. Once they have participated, the students are likely to volunteer a second or third time. Providing a list of questions to be discussed gives some control over what will be presented.
As we continue up the pyramid, some staff time needs to be committed to training. We know that no one promotes study abroad as well as a returnee, and there is no better place for promotion than the classroom. That said, simply sending enthusiastic returnees into the classroom with no training can create a public relations nightmare with your faculty. A 2-hour training sessionin which prospective speakers are introduced to their dual audience in the classroom, learn to give a general overview of study abroad at your school, and prepare and present a 10-minute presentation based on their own study abroad experienceis all it takes to reach hundreds of students each semester. And if the speakers are responsible for contacting faculty and setting up their own presentation times, staff time required for a successful program is little more than the training and reviewing the faculty evaluations.
One Peer Adviser per Program
One or two study abroad staff members and 300 students going abroad equals mountains of emails. And while questions about things like the availability of curling irons are of utmost importance to the student asking the question, you may not be able to treat it as your highest priority. Enter the peer adviser.
Hire one peer adviser for each program on which you regularly send students, train them for their role, and suddenly the emails you are dealing with are those that really require your attention and expertise. Have those same peer advisers hold regular office hours for appointments from prospective students and your calendar is clear for such enjoyable topics as grade disputes. Involve peer advisers in orientation and the possibilities are endless! Sending out weekly "priority lists" via email and holding twice-monthly meetings gives time for structured feedback, and the time savings is enormous.
Having students speak on panels and staff tables is great, but recruiting and preparing the students and facilitating the panels and small group discussions may require time you do not have. In this case, student office assistants are a wonderful option. With training, a student assistant can take on multiple roles, from data entry and filing to general advising and facilitating promotional activities. Most students thrive on having a variety of activities. Tailor the level and diversity of responsibility to the individual student.
Training May Be Minimal
Many study abroad professionals are hesitant to offer office internships because of the amount of supervision required to provide a meaningful experience. But the truly committed student, who may be thinking of a career in international education, can contribute greatly to the office while gaining important pre-professional training. If you are able to offer academic credit for the internship, it may be an even more attractive opportunity. And if you offer a range of involvement opportunities for students, it is likely that a student inquiring about an internship will be someone who has already been involved in a number of other office activities. By the time a student applies to be an intern there may be little training required; supervision may be similar to what you would give an entry-level employee.
Interns may have responsibility for specific projects, such as an office newsletter, general information sessions, or coordinating your annual study abroad fair. They may also take on a supervisory role with other students, such as a peer adviser coordinator, or be trained for walk-in advising. Encouraging interns to participate in NAFSA or other professional organizations is an effective way to introduce them to the field and to assist them in networking for future career opportunities.
The Question of Pay
The question of pay for the various positions outlined above is a sticky one. On the one hand, it is only fair to recognize good work in a monetary manner, and most college students are in need of cash. In addition, paid employees often feel a stronger commitment to their work than do volunteers. On the other hand, if resources were not an issue we would all be hiring additional professional staff. One compromise that can work well is to offer stipends for certain positions, with well-defined expectations and responsibilities. If those expectations are met and the responsibilities carried out, the stipend is paid. Student feedback on this form of payment has been very positive. In the words of a recent peer adviser, "I love promoting study abroad, and I would have been interested in this position regardless of the money. But knowing that I was an employee did make a difference in how seriously I took my work, particularly when schoolwork was stressing me out."
Most of us entered the field of international education partly because we so enjoy working with the enthusiastic, idealistic students who are attracted to study abroad. As the number of outgoing students increase, the opportunity for in-depth interaction with students prior to departure decreases. Extensive involvement of returned participants in study abroad activities on campus both assists students' reentry and allows professional staff to work intensively with a smaller cohort of committed, excited studentswho, in turn, remind us of why we entered the field in the first place.
CHERYL B. LOCHNER-WRIGHT is the Study Abroad Coordinator for the Center for International Education at the Univ. of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.