For a decade now, I have been committed to offering students the opportunity to have a study abroad experience. In that time, I have taken almost 400 undergraduate students on trips abroad, including more than 30 visits to Costa Rica.
Study abroad, undergraduate research, service learning, internships and other high-impact experiences are recognized as effective practices to help students develop critical thinking and communication skills, personal and social responsibility, and an openness to lifelong learning. They have become a focus for universities as part of a commitment to provide undergraduates with career-relevant knowledge and skills, and to make them productive citizens in a rapidly changing world. Specifically, there is an increasing need for graduates who can learn quickly and deeply, adapt to change, and create new opportunities for themselves and others. High-impact experiences have a demonstrated effect on student performance and engagement, increase retention, encourage transition to graduate studies and improve career placement.
While the drive to improve teaching and learning through high-impact learning experiences fulfills an important obligation of a university, I believe too much emphasis is placed on the benefits to the student alone. Little consideration is given to the professional and personal benefits to the participating faculty members. Without consideration and promotion of those benefits, it can be difficult to create sustainable and scalable experiences that benefit the student.
As a former administrator at Texas A&M University and now at the University of Windsor, I have been able to help other faculty develop and commit to high-impact learning experiences by emphasizing that these experiences are not just for the students. I do this by telling them my personal story of how study abroad impacted me professionally and personally as a faculty member.
While I have had many memorable experiences during study abroad trips, my favourite is from an unexpected stay in Punta Gorda, Belize. A group of students and I had been staying on Lime Caye along the Mesoamerican Reef, about 35 kilometres offshore. Midway through our trip, Hurricane Ernesto developed in the Caribbean and we were evacuated by the Belizean navy to the small town of Punta Gorda near the border of Guatemala. I borrowed a bicycle to get around the town and stopped at Gomiers Vegan Vegetarian and Seafood Restaurant; by that evening I was working as their sous chef. The chef taught me how to make callaloo in coconut milk with ginger and lime, prepare snapper in coconut fish, and make a spicy Mayan hot chocolate.
Hurricane Ernesto created for me an amazing and unexpected opportunity for personal growth. It was in that moment that I realized that study abroad is not just an opportunity for the students.
Beyond expanding my cooking abilities, my study abroad trips have resulted in more than $1.5 million in external research grants directly related to the data collected on those trips, numerous publications (in addition to my main research) on the perceived and realized benefits of high-impact experiences, private donations by former students and other friends of the institution, and my repatriation back to Canada.
Study abroad also opened new avenues for me as a coastal geomorphologist. The proof-of-concept data collected by students on a study abroad trip in 2014 resulted in a new research collaboration with scientists at the Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica on rip currents. This work is being used to inform legislation to establish a lifesaving association and fund lifeguards on the major tourist beaches in the country. Contrary to what some may believe, study abroad and a commitment to other high-impact experiences did not come at the expense of my research productivity, nor did it pose a problem for tenure and promotion. In fact, it was the catalyst to my career.
It will be difficult for many institutions to increase the number and diversity of authentic high-impact experiences for students if the conversation is limited to the benefits to students and the faculty member is forgotten. By including the benefits to faculty in discussions on the importance of high-impact experiences, we will help to bridge the increasing disconnect and conflict that many professors feel in terms of their competing duties to teaching, research and service. And if we succeed in convincing more faculty members of these benefits, we will be in a position to provide more students with high-impact learning opportunities. This is the message that I have now brought to the faculty of science as we seek to enhance the student experience.
Chris Houser is dean of the faculty of science at the University of Windsor.