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Honors Programs and Study Abroad

How the Two Can Be Integrated

When I worked as a director of an honors program for an American state university a number of my honors students voiced their desire to study abroad, but then they seemed reluctant to make the commitment to international study. Some of the objections were typical of all students:

 “It will cost too much” (until I pointed out that costs are often comparable to university study in the United States).

 “I’ll get homesick.” (Yes, and you will soon be too busy and interested to stay homesick.)

 “The courses will be too difficult.” (You’ve met previous academic challenges successfully in the past.)

But some of the objections were unique to honors students. Honors programs offer enriched curricula to academically gifted and talented students. In smaller colleges they provide a more challenging curriculum that often involves independent research, leadership seminars, or special internships. In large state universities honors programs are often designed to provide an atmosphere of a small liberal arts college. Instead of large lectures, there are discussion-based seminars. Honors education also stresses interdisciplinary courses, student-centered learning, and independent creative work, often in the form of a required undergraduate thesis or project.

Entrance and continued participation in these programs is competitive, requiring continued maintenance of a high grade point average. Many honors students also have graduate or professional school in their career plans. If an honors student is doing pre-medical or pre-law preparation, they also have to take a variety of courses in addition to their regular course of study.

Characteristics of Honors Students

There is no such thing as a “typical honors student,” just as there is no typical university student. But several scholarly studies have indicated that honors students tend to have particular characteristics. Often academic high achievers, they can be perfectionists, placing high demands on themselves, which can lead to grade-anxiety. Many honors students have strong needs to exert their autonomy, are often quite persistent about succeeding, and tend to be INTJ types on the Myers-Briggs scale, indicating that they are more introverted, intuitive, reflective, and analytic types. While their work tends to be excellent, honors students tend not to speak up in class and desire clearly defined and predictable expectations for coursework.

Integrating International Study and Honors

The combination of demanding class schedules, introversion, and the need for predictability translates into many perceived obstacles to study abroad for honors students.

1. “I don’t have time for study abroad; my class schedule is too demanding.”

If the student is in a pre-professional major or science discipline where the prerequisites are particularly tightly scheduled, international study can be a challenge. However there are several solutions:

 International study can be accomplished during summer sessions or over Christmas vacations. Studyabroad.com is an excellent database of such programs. These include Semester at Sea, which offers 70 academic disciplines, and Global Student Experience, which has a number of summer programs in Europe, Australia, or Argentina. Another possibility is the Oxford Experience, summer courses students can take for credit through Oxford’s Continuing Education Programme while staying in one of the historic colleges.

 Enrolling in a study abroad program that offers courses that will transfer into the student’s major is another way to tackle the requirements overload. Obviously, taking this route involves a good amount of conversation between the student’s major adviser and the international education officer, but it is certainly worth pursuing. Previously for science students this was a particular challenge, but now there are a number of international programs of study in the sciences and engineering. For instance, Georgia Tech has a sister campus called Georgia Tech Lorraine in Metz, France for electrical engineering, computer engineering, and mechanical engineering majors who will be in their third year of study. Students also take French and humanities courses. The Global Engineering Education Exchange “offers the opportunity for American students to study in one of 17 countries overseas, and for international students at partner campuses to study in the United States.”

 Pre-medical students in particular should be sure to participate in programs that provide an American transcript for the courses that are taken abroad. This is so the Medical School Admissions Committee can evaluate any work done to fulfill core pre-medical requirements.

2. “I won’t know what to expect in a foreign classroom. Studying abroad will therefore hurt my grades, which means I won’t be able to pursue my chosen career.”

There is no doubt that international study is different. As an example, in Britain courses are called modules, lectures are generally once per week, with a seminar every fortnight (another British term), and one’s grade is determined by a paper and a final examination. The assigned readings are in the library (no textbook buying as in U.S. universities), and students are expected to do their own independent studying without the spur of continual assessment.

For a risk-adverse honors student, this may sound like a disaster to be avoided. But generally the same skills of timemanagement and efficient studying that have led to a student’s success at their home institution transfer to their university abroad. Certainly a student may be rewarded for different skills than are normally measured in their host country; memorization may be prized in some cultures, others value independent thought, and there may be a basic factual or cultural foundation of which an international student is unaware. But problems can be avoided by communicating with the instructor. And if a grade-anxious student is very concerned that taking a particular course in the study-abroad program is “too much of a stretch,” they usually have the option of taking it on a pass-fail or no-credit basis.

Evidence of international study will also make a student’s application to a graduate program more competitive, and admissions committees take into account the added challenges of international studies when assessing a student’s scholastic record. If an international program involves language study, increased fluency in that language can be a tremendous asset to potential employers, as well as the increased maturity and flexibility of mind that often results from international study. The latter benefit is particularly important for a more introverted honors student.

Students also need to be reminded that their education is about more than grades; if they aren’t feeling uncomfortable or unfamiliar with a situation or a concept, it is likely they aren’t learning anything. Many honors students are excellent at mindlessly assimilated learning, which can lead to intellectual laziness. Travel on the other hand is expressly experiential and leads to intentional and transformative learning. Honors students have to be encouraged to take the risk of being actively thoughtful rather than passively thoughtless.

If an American student does not want to be completely immersed in a foreign institution, there are many study abroad programs specifically for honors students that are staffed by American faculty. A disadvantage of programs staffed by the originating institution is that students may have quite limited interaction with their host culture. This is why it is important to steer students to programs that allow them to experience the cultural differences of their new environment.

The National Collegiate Honors Council, the professional organization for American university honors programs offer honors semesters abroad. As the NCHC states, “Semesters are offered regularly to allow honors students from throughout the U.S. to gather for learning experiences away from their own campus. NCHC semesters offer a full load of transferable college credit and combine field studies, research, internships, seminars, and a carefully planned living-learning environment that fully exploits the resources of the semester's locale.”

The teaching philosophy underlying these semesters is called “Place as Text,” a concept created by Dr. Bernice Braid. “Place as Text” stresses ethnographic and experiential education to immerse students in their host culture. NCHC Honors semesters have been held at Greece, Rome, and Morocco, as well as domestic venues.

Some university honors colleges also have study abroad programs open to honors students from any institution of higher education. Eastern Illinois University offers an Honors Summer Program at the Universite Catholique de Louvain in Belgium that includes archaeological study of historic sites. The University of North Carolina at Wilmington has an Honors Semester Program at the University of Wales Swansea which includes a choice of intensive internships in everything from archaeology to media studies to social work.

Other university study abroad programs offer honors courses within their curricula. The Study-In-England Programme at the University of Minnesota Duluth, which I directed, had a variety of honors courses on offer. One of the courses was on early modern English history, which involved local site visits, and another an honors seminar entitled “The Art of the Memoir,” in which students read memoirs about cultural change and adjustment, as well as writing their own. The small student-faculty ratio also meant that honors students had an increased opportunity to meet their faculty mentors for their undergraduate theses.

3. “Traveling hurts the environment.”

This objection was from an honors student in environmental studies who was learning about carbon footprints. Indeed, as students gain more awareness as global citizens they may voice legitimate concerns about the impact their travel will have on the environment.

It is important for all students to consider to what extent their travel benefits the communities in which they are studying. To what extent do they intend to be a student abroad and not merely a tourist? To what extent can they contribute to their host country? Some students are best served by a course of international volunteering rather than formal study, such as teaching English abroad.

Other than using the information above as a guide, one of the best ways to answer objections about international study is for a student to talk to another person who has been on the program of interest. Peer enthusiasm, as well as concrete evidence that a successful academic career is possible when doing studyabroad is often enough to convince the interested but skeptical honors student. For as many perceived obstacles as there are for honors students when considering international study, there are also many solutions.

For More Info

The Following are Study Abroad Programs Referenced in the Article:

National Collegiate Honors Council, Honors Semesters 1100 Neihardt Residence Ctr., University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 540 N. 16th St., Lincoln, NE 68588-0627; www.nchchonors.org.

Oxford University Continuing Education, The Oxford Experience, OUDCE, 1 Wellington Square, Oxford, OX1 2JA, U.K.; www.conted.ox.ac.uk.

Semester at Sea

University of Minnesota Duluth International Education Office.

Georgia Tech Lorraine Georgia Tech Lorraine (GTL) is the European campus of the Georgia Institute of Technology, School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, located in the city of Metz in the Lorraine Region of France; www.ece.gatech.edu/academics/undergrad/intl-programs.html.

Global Engineering Education Exchange, Institute of International Education, 809 United Nations Pl., New York, NY 10017-3580.

Global Student Experience, 17752 Skypark Circle, Ste. 235, Irvine, CA 92614; www.gseabroad.com.

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