Looking at photos of the Eiffel Tower is one thing; actually standing beneath it and gazing up at its immensity, with the musical sound of the French language filling your ears, is quite another. Such a moment – and others like it – is common for students who choose to study abroad. Yet not only does international study enable a student to visit and learn about another culture, it also “challenges you to rethink and question beliefs you have had all your life,” says Erin Heidkamp, interim director of the Office of International Education (OIE). “It changes everyone in a different way.”
When Heidkamp first came to Southern about four years ago, OIE dealt strictly with study abroad. In most cases, Heidkamp explains, international program offices serve all members of the campus community and manage multiple programs and services, including individual study abroad, faculty-led programs abroad, risk management for study abroad, internships, scholarships, international insurance, immigration advising and much more. But at Southern, these programs and services developed over more than two decades in three different offices: International Programs, Sponsored Programs and Research, and International Student Services.
In January 2012, OIE was formed, merging the former Office of International Programs and the Office of International Student Services. Following Heidkamp’s appointment as interim director of OIE, she began to transition all international programs and services into a single office — the OIE.
She also took on the additional responsibility of handling H-1B visas for Southern’s full-time international non-immigrant faculty. Thus, over a short period of time, and with no increase in staff, the landscape of the OIE changed dramatically while managing to maintain a student-centered approach. OIE’s efforts seem to be paying off: during the past year, the office sent more students abroad and welcomed more exchange students and J-1 visiting scholars than ever before, while expanding its programming to suit the needs of a much broader range of students.
Most notably, Heidkamp says, OIE has seen a 25-percent increase in study abroad participation, with even greater participation anticipated for 2014, based on long-term study abroad applications submitted for spring and fall and summer program abroad sign-up lists. Southern’s faculty-led spring break and summer program offerings for 2014 have
seen a 40-percent increase, with Jamaica, Brazil, Armenia and a re-envisioned China program joining the seven existing programs (Bermuda, Guatemala, Iceland, Paris, Rome, Spain and Tuscany), as well as a 40-percent increase in reciprocal exchange partner universities. OIE has also established National Student Exchange (NSE) as a “study away” experience for students unable or not yet prepared to study abroad. Finally, the office reinvigorated the university’s J-1 Visa Visiting Scholar Program, with 15 international J-1 visiting scholars having visited Southern during the 2012-2013 academic year.
“Our students like the faculty-led programs,” Heidkamp says, explaining that many Southern students have never left the United States before, so they appreciate the structure a professor adds to the experience. She points out that with so many Southern students having jobs and other outside obligations, taking a whole year or semester to go abroad is not always feasible, thus the popularity of the shorter-term programs. Heidkamp says she had expected that the longer-term programs would have a bigger impact on students but has found that students return from the four- to six-week programs “transformed.”
Strengthening the university’s program in international education was part of the university’s 2007-2012 Strategic Plan: “Preparing students and faculty for life and work in a global society” is one of the plan’s overarching goals and strategic initiatives, and such preparation includes expanding international opportunities for both students and faculty. Heidkamp says it remains to be seen how global education will fit into the university’s new strategic plan, as well as the ConnSCU plan, but both President Mary Papazian and interim Provost Marianne Kennedy have been very supportive of OIE and its efforts to grow the university’s international offerings.
“We must recognize that we are part of a global marketplace, and we must strive to give our students more international exposure at home and abroad,” Papazian said in her State of the University address earlier this semester. “We can achieve our goal of preparing our local students for a global world both by increasing opportunities for study abroad programs and by attracting more foreign — and out-of-state — students to attend Southern and further enrich the diverse tapestry of our campus.”
OIE holds an annual welcome back event in October, to acknowledge the significance of students’ study abroad experiences, and a scholarship ceremony in April. This year, Heidkamp says, her office is coordinating with GEAC to hold a spring international festival on campus with speakers, performances and foods from around the world.