Back in 2003 the University decided to try out a new idea by offering four short-term study abroad “Exploration Seminars” during the time between summer and fall quarters. Those seminars proved so popular that in 2010, there will be 10 times that number offered. Given the rapid growth, International Programs and Exchanges decided the time was right to give the programs a more thorough evaluation, and the results were recently released.
“We’ve always assessed our programs, but we’ve never looked at that data in aggregate and we’ve never really gone into greater depth, so this time we did some focus groups,” said Max Savishinsky, director of the Exploration Seminars program. “We’ve done surveys in the past, but this was more involved and robust and big picture.”
Exploration Seminars are typically three-to-four-week programs led by a faculty member. They involve hands-on experience for students in tackling issues of local and global significance — from water quality in Brazil to women’s leadership in India. Since the beginning, the seminars have taken students to 50 countries on six continents.
The evaluation, which was done in collaboration with the Office of Educational Assessment, included a web-based survey of the 651 students who went on Exploration Seminars in 2008 and two focus groups made up of some of those students. Surveys were returned by 566 students — a remarkable 87 percent response rate. And what those students had to say was overwhelmingly positive. For example, two-thirds rated how much they had learned as excellent, while almost 90 percent rated it either good or excellent. An amazing 95 percent said they would recommend the program to others.
“We’re delighted with the results,” Savishinsky said. “The numbers just confirm the responses we’ve been getting over the years.”
Of course, not everything about the program got top ratings. A mandatory online orientation that all UW study abroad participants must complete before their program — which covers topics from health and safety issues and smart travel to UW policies and procedures for financial aid and credits — was rated a 2.0 out of a possible 4.0, indicating it was only somewhat useful and informative.
“I’d like to move beyond the online orientation to an in-person one,” said Peter Moran, director of International Programs and Exchanges. “It’s difficult for logistical reasons, but I feel it’s really important to have one overarching orientation and then to work with program directors to tailor an orientation for specific programs.”
Moran said such a program would be devoted to getting the students ready — ready in the sense of what they can expect, health challenges, cultural differences, dress, customs, food — and to remind them they are representatives of the University and of the U.S. in general.
“Sometimes students forget that,” Moran said. “It’s a theoretical point here, but when they go, they understand pretty quickly that they’re being looked at as something more than just an individual.”
One area of the survey results that surprised Savishinsky was the demographics of the participating students.
“We hadn’t tracked that before,” he said. “We worked on some assumptions: The programs are expensive so we’re not attracting low income, financial aid students or minority students proportionate to their representation at the UW. I was happy to see that isn’t true.”
In fact, the percentage of financial aid students was about 40 percent — similar to what it is in the general student population. Similarly, the percentage of minority students participating was about equal to their representation in the general student population.
Even with the good representation of financial aid students, however, Savishinsky and Moran recognize that studying abroad is an expensive proposition. Exploration Seminars cost between $2,000 and $4,000 plus airfare and happen at a time when students might otherwise be working and earning money to help with college expenses. Therefore, one of the program’s goals for the future is to provide more scholarship funding.
Another surprise in the demographics was that UW Bothell and UW Tacoma students had proportional representation in Exploration Seminars — a fact that pleased Savishinsky because the programs are administered in Seattle and might be less visible to students in Bothell and Tacoma.
One statistic, however, was no surprise: Women far outnumbered men, making up 72 percent of participating students. Savishinsky said this was typical of all study abroad programs — not just here but nationwide — and that many people had speculated on it but no one had a definitive reason for it.
Most students going on Exploration Seminars were juniors or seniors, and one of their frequent comments on the survey was about that.
“Students said that they wished they had gone earlier,” Savishinsky said. “They come out of the programs with more perspective on many things. It influences the things they want to study or the things they want to do.”
In fact, on the survey, more than one-third of the students said their professional goals had changed as a result of their participation.
Given these results, Savishinsky and Moran said, that one of their goals for the future will be to increase outreach to freshmen, to get them thinking about study abroad earlier.
Faculty directors of the seminars were not surveyed — something Savishinsky and Moran would like to do in the future.
“They have been surveyed informally and they have been encouraged, although not required, to write reports at the end of their programs, which can sometimes serve more as self evaluations, ” Savishinsky said. “We evaluate them based on what we get from students. But I think it’s an important thing to look at. I’ve started to realize that what the students say about the programs, faculty say too. It might not be the first time abroad for them, but a lot of the benefits are similar. They say they come back and change the way they teach.”
“I think it has a profound effect on pedagogy,” Moran added. “I have had many experiences with faculty who talk about how unbelievably rewarding they find teaching students in a field environment, where the world is the classroom. And it also makes them think about what they can do back here. It gives them a greater window into students’ lives.”