International Programs Office gives students a chance to travel abroad

By Jaclyn Bryson

Collegian File Photo
Collegian File Photo

With the help of the International Programs Office, five percent of University of Massachusetts students take their studies across the globe, learning the Romance languages of Europe, tasting the food of Asia, experiencing the culture of Africa or meeting the people of South America.

“Study abroad is widely known as a high-impact educational practice in the world of higher education pedagogy,” said Jack Ahern, vice provost and director of IPO. “Students gain a greater appreciation for diversity. They appreciate that the world doesn’t stop at the borders of the United States.”

IPO has been around since the 1970s and was first started by Barbara Burn, who worked there for decades until her death. Today, the office is divided into two sections – education abroad and international student and scholar services. With a team of advisors and staff educated in different parts of the globe, the goal of IPO is to guide students through the study abroad application process so they are prepared for a chance to live in a foreign country.

“We have a large advising staff who are experts in different regions of the world,” Ahern said. “The advisers try to understand the students’ personal interests and also the needs of their academic programs.”

“(Advisers) help from step one,” said peer adviser Gabrielle Cook, who added that her job begins when a student enters IPO knowing they want to study abroad, and continues until the advisers have helped them set up an online account, talked with them about their finances, helped them choose exactly where they wish to travel and what program is the best fit.

According to Ahern, there are approximately 400 programs around the world offered at UMass. Last year, 1,200 students took part in many of these programs, a slight increase from the year before. According to the National Association of Foreign Student Advisors, only about one percent of students in the United States study abroad.

“We recently signed onto a program that’s coordinated by the Institute of International Education. They are on an ambitious program to double the number of American students who study abroad by the year 2020,” said Ahern, who has also made this a goal of IPO. “We’re aiming for a substantial increase, hopefully to double the number of students who study abroad.”

And in order to offer these students a wide variety of study abroad opportunities, there are three distinct categories of foreign programs students can participate in through IPO.

Faculty-led programs are created when professors take a personal interest in creating their own study abroad program for students, while exchange programs are designed to allow for UMass students to go abroad while a foreign student comes to campus in their place. The most popular however, according to Ahern, is partner programs, where UMass forms ties with private businesses that specialize in study abroad programs.

“Every program has its own story,” he added, and according to Ahern, making these options available is no easy task. Faculty-led programs require a strong initiative from UMass staff, and today, this has resulted in various programs such as biology studies in the Amazon and theater classes in South Africa. For many exchange and partner programs, staff will research what foreign institutions are best suited for UMass students, for example, by going to the NAFSA conference where 10,000 people gather for academic sessions and a trade show where study abroad programs are on display.

“I guess we can say we’re a little ‘status in rankings’ conscious,” Ahern said. “We’re not obsessed with that, but we like to aim high and we like to work with equivalent or better partners.”

And the IPO staff doesn’t stop working once a student has chosen a study abroad program. Ahern added that the office pays attention to risk management, making sure students are safe during their time away from UMass. They are also investing time in increasing student interest in programs abroad, through events such as their annual education abroad fair, to be held this year on March 4.

But despite the challenges and efforts that go into getting UMass students to embark on a study abroad program, many agreed that it was all worth it in the end. After spending a semester in Barcelona herself, Cook was motivated to become part of the IPO advising team upon her return to UMass.

“When I studied abroad my junior year fall semester, I had the most amazing time ever, and I really owe it to the peer advisors who were helping me when I was abroad,” she said, adding that her advisors helped push her out of her comfort zone. “(Study abroad) taught me to say yes to things – to not be scared of different experiences and to take advantage of everything that is happening.”

Jaclyn Bryson can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @MackyMouse93.