Winter at Westminster Featured in Wall Street Journal
Wall Street Journal
February 2, 2007
Colleges are pitching a new kind of semester away -- in the U.S. Our reporter on dog-sled class, strapped parents and culture shock in L.A.
By HANNAH KARP
Two weeks into his exchange program, Ross Schatz says he feels "haggard." Economics major Ryan Pergola has a headache. And Michael Nord says his brain hurts.
"I fell on my head real bad," says Mr. Nord, a University of Minnesota senior who had been attempting a "heel grab" in the snowboard park. As for Mr. Pergola's head: "I had six beers on the mountain," says the 21-year-old from Tampa Bay, Fla.
Forget Paris: They are spending the semester in Utah on a new "study abroad alternative" program offered by Westminster College in Salt Lake City. The liberal arts school requires students to take a full load of classes, but promises no class on Fridays and provides students with season passes to two resorts, Nordic jumping clinics and Sundance Film Festival screenings.
The year-old program is one of many new domestic opportunities for college students, mostly juniors, who want a break from their own campuses but are hesitant, for a variety of reasons, to leave the U.S. Many of the programs are hosted by universities that can pair classwork (jazz in New Orleans, entertainment law in Los Angeles) with easy access to activities like surfing, snowboarding, shopping or even dog mushing in Alaska. For host schools, it's a chance to bank tuition dollars, fill seats and raise their profiles.
In some cases, universities that allow their students to attend these programs collect their own full tuition and then reimburse the host school at that program's lower amount. Critics say that with their classes in the ethics of outdoor recreation or seminars on ski-resort management, the programs can be less than rigorous, with too much focus on extracurriculars. "I did everything in my power to talk him out of it," says Pete Cordero, father of business major and ski enthusiast Michael, who's spending this semester at Westminster.
The University of Miami draws students to its new Miami Semester program with the promise of trips to the Everglades, tickets to Miami Heat basketball games, access to Cuban culture and classes in marine science. Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., launched a sociology program in San Francisco four years ago; students often take courses in human sexuality and recently had the chance to visit an annual S&M festival. Over the past three years, a handful of schools from Texas to New York have started programs in Los Angeles that include surfing in Malibu and outings to the Hollywood Bowl.
Officials at host programs say they spend a good deal of time reassuring incredulous parents. For the three-year-old Study Abroad Hawaii, which welcomes students to Hawaii Pacific University with luaus and Mai Tais, founder Jeff Palm says parents are often skeptical about programs "where it's warmer and nicer." He says he markets it as an international experience, since one-third of the school's students are not from the U.S. and Hawaiian culture is so distinct. At the Chicago Center's semester program, Valerie Wallace, administrative director, says participants will become "globally prepared." Students live in co-ops in Hyde Park and take classes such as "Cultural Diversity." Internships include wedding planning and improv comedy. "It's more diverse than some study-abroad experiences where you live with other Americans in a dorm," says Ms. Wallace.
With college costs already steep, Carol Powers of Pembroke, Mass., wasn't thrilled when her son Tom passed over a business-management program in Australia for a pricier option in Los Angeles that required her to take out a $6,000 loan. "It seemed ridiculous. He needs a rental car so he can live with beautiful people?" says Ms. Powers, a 59-year-old social worker who fears he will be seduced by the money and "blonde, tan, perfect bodies" of L.A. "I think it's so superficial. In Australia he would have learned about a lot of different cultures."
Tom, a business-management major from Boston University, is taking classes in entertainment law and management, but has spent much of the past month cruising with his friends along Sunset Boulevard and looking for an internship. He says here, too, there are cultural differences: He doesn't have to wear a tie for interviews, and unlike Boston, where "you are what you do, in L.A., you are what you drive."
While study abroad dates back centuries -- Alexander the Great studied in Takshasila, India -- U.S. programs started about eight decades ago, when the University of Delaware established a year-long immersion program in France for third-year French students in 1923. It became known as junior year abroad, a term soon adopted by other schools for similar programs for foreign language majors. The programs shut down during World War II but then grew again, with expanded courses for students in other fields.
As political instability abroad has risen, along with parents' worries about safety and post-graduation job competition, programs that keep students in the U.S. are flourishing. Schools say the programs -- sometimes called exchanges or "study away" -- can offer networking and internship opportunities. The National Student Exchange, a nonprofit group that began in 1968 with three colleges, now has a network of 180 schools. It places 3,500 students every year, typically for semester-long stays.
Yale University senior Michael Fernandez, a Spanish and political science major, says his parents were thrilled to have him spend a semester at home in Miami. He says it was pretty laid-back: His afternoons were free -- he spent them bowling with childhood friends and relaxing at the beach -- and he didn't even petition to get credit for the Cuban-history and foreign-policy classes he took, which cost about $5,400 total. (Mr. Fernandez says he didn't want the grades to affect his GPA.) "I learned a great deal, but it wasn't the pressure cooker Yale was," he says.
Yale, which has had other students attend the University of Miami program, allows students to apply two credits from another U.S. school -- about half the load of a typical semester -- toward the 36 Yale requires for graduation. Courses are approved on a case-by-case basis. Mr. Fernandez's courses might have transferred, says Yale spokeswoman Gila Reinstein, but he would need permission. The same applies to other Miami courses on offer, including the "Politics of Pornography" and "Comic Books in American Popular Culture."
The amount of credit students can transfer varies. Some schools approve any domestic program with classes at an accredited American university -- and credits often translate more easily than those from a foreign college. Other schools require that students take a leave of absence and limit the amount of credit given. Cornell University's College of Arts and Sciences won't accept credits earned on any domestic program except its own in Washington.
Sending a student to a domestic program can bring a school extra money. Brandeis University charges full tuition of $16,476 per semester for every semester spent off campus, plus an off-campus study fee of $400. After approval, it pays the tuition and charges to the off-campus program, pocketing any differences. Duke University does not collect tuition, but it does collect a $2,250 per semester fee from students who participate in off-campus programs.
For some parents, studying is beside the point. Susan Maisto of Brightwaters, N.Y., says her daughter deserved her semester in Hawaii last fall -- Mary, a sociology and business major, has a 3.9 grade-point average at Hofstra University. Between classes such as "Exploring Film" and "Public Speaking," her daughter tried new things like driving an ATV and braving the ocean in an outrigger canoe. "It was about the experience more than the academics," says Ms. Maisto, a real-estate broker.
Australia or Shopping?
Student Briana Tahan, an advertising major from Livingston, N.J., found another attraction. She was on the fence between going to Australia and Los Angeles, but finally decided Australia seemed "a little far" -- and that L.A.'s vintage stores are second to none. "Fashion really starts in L.A.," says the 21-year-old Boston University junior, who says she has been doing "tons of shopping" in between marketing and film-production classes since she arrived four weeks ago.
The U.S.-based programs follow a rise in traditional study abroad. Last year, the number of American students who studied in a foreign country grew 8% over the previous year, to 206,000. But the amount of time spent overseas is dropping. Last year, 51.4% of students who studied abroad elected to go on programs lasting less than eight weeks, while 6% went abroad for the full academic year, according to the Institute of International Education. Ten years ago, 40.5% chose short-term programs, and 12% went abroad for the year.
As more students have signed up, the cost of supporting overseas programs has sometimes become unsustainable. Until a few years ago, Butler University in Indianapolis was losing about $1 million a year letting students go on study-abroad programs. That's led many schools to start capping the number of participants, raising fees and pitching cheaper, domestic itineraries. Boston University, which has seen the number of its students who study abroad grow 68% over the past eight years, launched its semester in Los Angeles in 2001. This year, it began charging a $500 fee for students who choose study-abroad programs hosted by other schools.
Some academics say domestic programs should not replace overseas study, which can bring cultural respect and understanding. Amherst College's study-abroad adviser William Hoffa says U.S. programs don't give students the chance to confront their own "American-ness," which he calls an important if sometimes uncomfortable task.
Louise Gava, a senior at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., missed the overseas experience after spending a semester her sophomore year in the Adirondacks, where she canoed, swam and took classes in art and outdoor-recreation ethics. So her junior year, the biology student went to Kenya. (The Adirondacks semester cost the same as her standard tuition, about $20,265 in 2005, while the Kenya program cost an extra $3,000.)
After taking a semester of African studies and week of intensive Swahili, the Clifton Park, N.Y., native says she gained new perspective as she wrestled with everything from a subcutaneous bug on her stomach (she popped it out back home) to explaining her vegan diet to her host family after they announced they had "killed their fattest chicken" for her arrival. "It's a choice of affluence and I struggle with that now all the time," she says.
Back at the Westminster program, students recently filed into a room at a ski lodge for a lecture after a day on the slopes. As resort marketing executives outlined issues facing the ski industry, sign-up sheets circulated for more ski trips the next day. Beyond the seminars, the program does have a language requirement of sorts. Each student has to invent a new piece of ski or snowboard lingo. One entry: "snowflake," one who shirks all responsibility to go skiing or riding on a powder day.
With spring break coming up, some students had already booked heli-skiing excursions and discounted trips to Jackson Hole in Wyoming. But for Alex Mulvaney of Venice Beach, Calif., that is icing on the cake. "I have no idea what I'm going to do," he says. "This is a vacation."
Write to Hannah Karp at firstname.lastname@example.org