More Colleges Coach Professors to Lead Study-Abroad Trips

Murray State U.

Murray State U.'s study-abroad program in Korea combines faculty and staff development with a program for students. The university requires professors who lead its programs to go through training in the logistics of study abroad.
February 07, 2010

Faculty-led study-abroad programs have proliferated in recent years, as colleges have sought ways to give time- and cash-strapped students some international exposure. Marrying academics' international experience with students' interests has seemed an ideal match for many institutions.

But as the programs have grown, colleges have discovered that relying on faculty members to design and organize study-abroad trips does not always go as smoothly as hoped. Professors often lack the administrative know-how to manage the nuts and bolts of such trips. And they must juggle their planning with other academic responsibilities.

Murray State University is one of several colleges to come up with a solution: mandatory training combined with staff support before, during, and after each trip.

Melanie McCallon, the university's associate director for education abroad, works closely with faculty members at every step, helping them craft course proposals, make travel arrangements, and recruit students.

Before departure, she holds an intensive session on health and safety abroad, covering a broad swath of issues from lost passports to infectious-disease outbreaks.

"We want to give them the confidence that they can lead a program abroad," she says, "and the knowledge to back that up."

The plan seems to be working well. Many professors at the western-Kentucky university are enthusiastically international, traveling out of the country for conferences, working with colleagues at foreign institutions, and conducting research overseas.

And with a study-abroad staff of just three, drawing on faculty expertise has been an effective way to expand Murray State's international offerings, says Ms. McCallon.

Over the past decade, the university has more than tripled the number of students it sends overseas, to 262. Nearly half of those students go on short-term, faculty-led trips.

Cultivating Excitement

Other institutions are also trying to be more systematic in preparing faculty members to take students overseas.

At Worcester Polytechnic Institute, professors serving as advisers on international programs must attend a daylong retreat where they examine case studies of incidents that occurred on previous trips.

Eastern Illinois University is starting a mentor program that will pair experienced faculty leaders with those teaching overseas for the first time.

"Faculty specialize in teaching, not in administration or marketing," says Wendy S. Williamson, director of study abroad at Eastern Illinois, and founder of, an online resource for education abroad.

At Murray State, Ms. McCallon holds one information session each semester for professors interested in proposing study-abroad trips. But she also makes herself available to meet with any interested faculty member any time. "I want to cultivate that excitement," she says.

Many of the ideas for faculty-led trips emerge from a professional-development program at Murray State that sends about 30 professors abroad each year, to China, Germany, or South Korea. The two-week trips to foreign universities and cultural sites are meant to encourage participants to bring a more international perspective to their teaching and research.

Other proposals come from faculty members' experience living or working abroad.

Kelly Rogers, an assistant professor of wellness and therapeutic services, had spent time in Costa Rica as a college student. But he decided he wanted to offer an outdoor-recreation-management course in Poland after a Murray State student from the country moved in with his family.

Some faculty members, like Mr. Rogers, arrive at the information session with specific plans, while others "come in the door and don't know where to start," Ms. McCallon says. "They just remember that they had a great experience as a graduate student in Chile 20 years ago."

The first meeting is meant to gauge interest, answer general questions, and give attendees an idea about what is involved in planning and leading such trips. Faculty members are then invited to submit a study-abroad course proposal.

The application is intentionally broad rather than deep, says Ms. McCallon, prompting professors to begin thinking through both the academic content of the course and the logistics of taking students overseas. They must explain why and where the course should be taught abroad, how they will recruit students, and what international contacts they might be able to draw on, among other issues.

Each proposal is reviewed by a four-person committee: two faculty members who vet its academic merits and two study-abroad staff members who focus on the practical details of overseas travel. The applicant's department chair and dean must also sign off on the plan.

Ms. McCallon says the committee rarely rejects a proposal outright but might instead urge the professor to deal with shortcomings and resubmit the plan.

Once the application is approved, Ms. McCallon and her staff work with faculty leaders every step of the way, helping design a budget, arrange travel and accommodations, and sign students up.

Mr. Rogers says the study-abroad staff encouraged him to consider details he might have otherwise overlooked.

For example, Ms. McCallon set up a meeting with a campus lawyer to talk about liabilities that could arise from participating in outdoor-recreation activities, such as climbing a ropes course, abroad.

"Melanie's attitude is, no question is dumb," Mr. Rogers says.

When Stephen H. Cobb, dean of the College of Science, Engineering, and Technology, created a spring-break study program for engineering students, Ms. McCallon connected him with a tour operator who arranged for travel throughout Britain, where students visited partner universities and toured laboratories and manufacturing sites.

Having that assistance "is peace of mind for a faculty member," Mr. Cobb says. "It frees you up to focus on the educational experience."

Most faculty members would simply not be able to pull off the overseas-study programs without the support of Ms. McCallon's office, Bonnie S. Higginson, associate provost for academic affairs, says. After all, she cannot relieve them from part of their course load to organize a trip, she says.

"If anyone knew what was involved in organizing these trips," says Ms. Higginson, who has led a group of students to teach in Belize, "they probably would never do it."

Hungry for Information

This academic year, Murray State is slated to send students abroad on 10 different programs, two during spring break and eight more immediately after the spring semester ends.

As the departure date nears, Ms. McCallon holds a workshop for trip leaders on risk management and on student health and safety issues. Students on short-term courses can have special needs because, compared with students on semester- or yearlong programs, they are less likely to have international-travel experience, says Ms. Williamson, of Eastern Illinois.

Murray State faculty members must also attend an orientation program for participating students that covers cultural and safety issues. And Ms. McCallon's support does not end once the group leaves the campus. She provides trip leaders with guides on dealing with emergencies and is available around the clock should any problems arise.

Ms. McCallon also asks faculty members to keep handwritten logs of any incidents or problems, no matter how minor, that occur during the program. She uses that information, along with feedback garnered during debriefing meetings after participants return, to update and revise the university's procedures and crisis-management protocols.

And she has put her experience to broader use. After she gave a talk a year ago on student health and safety abroad at a meeting of the Appalachian College Association, she and a Kentucky colleague, Bill Holmes, director of international education at Campbellsville University, realized that many small-college administrators and professors were "hungry" for information about organizing study-abroad trips.

So the two of them began writing a training manual. Faculty-Led 360: Guide to Successful Study Abroad will be published later this year.