Live in the Big World
Live in the Big World
UNH students on the Granada, Spain study abroad program, spring 2016. Jim Parsons (front right) joins them on a site visit.
Jim Parsons is a study abroad coordinator who never studied abroad as an undergraduate. Strange? Not really. As a first-generation college student at a small private university, he wasn’t quite sure how to make it work logistically or financially. It seemed out of reach. But after college, he figured out a way to go international. He taught English in France, earned a master’s degree in intercultural relations at Lesley University, worked for a major American study abroad program provider and travelled. Now he helps UNH students find their path to international experiences, putting study abroad within reach for others.
Parsons coordinates the 20 study abroad programs run by the College, his position created only a few years ago as part of an effort to increase the number of students studying abroad in time-tested faculty-led programs in England, Spain, Italy, China and elsewhere. According to the Institute of International Education (IIE), studies show that after students study abroad, their grades improve, their time to graduation is shorter and their employment rates are higher. Many UNH faculty members identify study abroad as crucial preparation for successfully navigating cultural diversity and the global marketplace — so important, in fact, that increasing participation is part of the University’s strategic initiative on internationalization.
But, according to statistics available from UNH’s Center for International Education and Global Engagement (CIEGE), in the last five years only between 4.4% and 5.4% of UNH undergraduates participated in study abroad programs annually, or 570 to 700 students per year. While that’s higher than the national rate (only 1.6% of U.S. undergraduates studied abroad in 2013-14, the latest figures available from IIE), it’s not a number that serves students or the world well.
CIEGE has recently partnered with IIE, an experienced international education and training organization, to double the number of UNH students studying abroad by the year 2020. The goal aligns with IIE’s “Generation Study Abroad” initiative, which seeks to double the number nationally.
For Parsons, the partnership provides the impetus to assess current programs and practices and identify opportunities for improvement.
“Two of the biggest barriers to studying abroad are a lack of finances and academic planning,” says Parsons. By the time some students decide to study abroad, the courses they need to complete their degree programs are too specific and not available abroad. “But I would guess that there are many students who dismiss the idea of studying abroad because of perceived rather than real barriers. Some might assume that studying abroad is financially out of reach without looking into scholarships or financial aid. For others, it could be some type of cultural barrier,” he says.
UNH students Kaitie McCall (left) and Bailey Johnson (center), and COLA study abroad coordinator Jim Parsons (right) attend the 50th anniversary of the UNH Dijon Program at the Université de Bourgogne campus in Dijon in March 2016.
One such cultural barrier seems to be gender-based. At UNH and nationally, the number of females studying abroad vastly outnumbers males. IIE President Allan Goodman calls it the “bro phenomenon,” in which some men are uncomfortable leaving their social networks, or “bros,” trepidatious about the level of independence study abroad requires.
Parsons and his colleagues in CIEGE have begun employing a number of strategies to start breaking down barriers. They’ve reached out to the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs to develop peer to peer communication about study abroad. They’re working with TRIO programs for first-generation and low-income students, and with the Office of National Fellowships to match scholarship opportunities with students in underrepresented groups.
“We’re trying to get the word out to students that there are often funding opportunities tied to certain groups, whether it be a certain major, first-generation students, particular racial or ethnic backgrounds, or geographic origin,” says Parsons.
And they’re trying to reach students early so that study abroad coursework is built into curricular plans as early as freshman year.
Meanwhile, fundraising efforts in the College have targeted study abroad support as a priority. Several generous donors have already stepped forward, investing in funds like Trout Scholars, a scholarship program for New Hampshire students studying abroad in College-managed programs.
Because of his own experience, Parsons says he identifies with students who see study abroad as an insurmountable challenge, and it motivates him. “Living abroad was the best experience of my life, so I want to help others do the same.” He loved navigating new cultures and languages. And, though he admits it sounds corny, he found the cliché accurate: the more you meet people from other places, the more you realize that we are all the same.
“Traveling or living abroad can make you a better person,” says Parsons. “It makes you more in tune with other people; it can make you more flexible and patient; it can improve your social skills. It made me want to improve those qualities in myself.”
Above all, living abroad was the biggest confidence boost Parsons ever had. And it’s the most common feedback he hears from students when they return from abroad. UNH feels just a little smaller, they say, and now they’re ready to take on the world.