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Students Expand Their World View with Study Abroad

Study Abroad, outside the Casa Rosada, the presidential palace in Buenos Aires, Argentina
From left are Brandy Hutchings; Shanice Beckham; Christopher DiCapua, assistant professor of Foreign Languages; Jacqueline DiNardi; and Ronald Martin outside the Casa Rosada, the presidential palace in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Photo by Christopher DiCapua.

Four years ago, George R. Boggs, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), challenged leaders of the nation’s approximately 1,200 community colleges to find ways to send more students abroad to study and emphasized the importance of global education in the development of a competitive workforce.

Although community colleges account for about half of all U.S. undergraduates, few offer students a chance to study abroad. Of the 223,000 American undergraduates who studied abroad in 2006–2007, only 6,000 were community college students.

Community College of Philadelphia rose to Boggs’ challenge by more than doubling the number of students it sends abroad in just four years. The College, which sponsored two study abroad trips for 17 students in 2007, this year sent 41 students to six countries: Mexico, Belize, Turkey, Argentina, Greece and Ghana. According to the AACC, the College is one of only 149 community colleges nationwide, and one of nine in Pennsylvania, to offer an international education option for students in 2010.

"We do quite a bit more than most other schools in the area, and our trips tend to be more affordable," said assistant professor Christopher DiCapua, coordinator of the College’s study abroad program and head of the College’s Foreign Languages department.

Organizing these international education opportunities has not been easy. The extended semester abroad typically offered by four-year institutions does not work for many community college students, who tend to be older and from lower income groups. Many have work and family obligations that make lengthy periods away from home impossible. Cost also is a major barrier.

With the help of English professor Fay Beauchamp, Ph.D., director of the College’s Center for International Understanding, and others, the College has developed an innovative model that offers short trips that are kept affordable thanks to aide from the College Foundation, federal, state and private sources. With the exception of the trip to Argentina, students paid $400 to $850 each for their study tour. 
“Many of the people we reach have never been on an airplane or even out of the city," Beauchamp said. “This is an important opportunity for them to experience the pleasure of traveling abroad.”

The College’s study abroad trips were structured so that participants could earn one academic credit.

Anthone  Moore
Student traveler Anthone Moore face-to-face with a tapir, an endangered species and Belize’s national animal. Photo by Margaret Stephens.

Studies have found that students who study abroad have improved academic performance upon returning to their home campuses, higher graduation rates and improved knowledge of cultural practices and context.

DiCapua said he observed a significant improvement in the Spanish fluency of the four students he took to Argentina. He said after 60 hours of classes at the ECELA Spanish language school, plus the immersive experience of conversing in Spanish with the families who provided them room and board, even the beginners were able to hold a conversation in Spanish by the end of the trip.

For student Stephen Calvarese, 22, the trip to Greece in May was his first time on a plane and his first time out of the country. His introduction to international travel was a trial by fire. A missed flight connection in Frankfurt, Germany, and misdirected luggage turned a 12-hour trip into a 24-hour ordeal. However, the travel weary group of four students and two faculty members arrived in Athens in time for the students to present a paper on Greek immigrants in Philadelphia to the Athens Institute for Education and Research.

Calvarese said the travel snafu did not mar his first foray outside of the United States. "It was a life-changing experience for me," he said. "Your first time going abroad opens up a different perspective on how you see the world."

Lori Albright was one of six students on the trip to Belize, where she examined the environmental changes affecting the country’s rivers and coastal waters. "When I started this trip, I was not sure what I would major in, but now, I am leaning towards a career in environmental research," Albright said. A discussion with five of the students and their faculty escorts Margaret Stephens and Stanley Walling will be aired on CCPTV this fall.