The Real Work of Leading Short-term Study Abroad Programs
Traveling is difficult, burdensome work.
The word “travel” entered the English language during the middle ages and was often associated with both the physical act of moving from one place to another and also the perils, difficulties, and burdens associated with the actual movement. It comes from the French “travail,” suffering, and is directly related to the English word of the same spelling, the modern Spanish word “to work” — trabajo -, and the modern French word for “to work” — travailler.
Etymologists trace the origin of the word “travel” all the way back to the Latin tripalium, a late Roman torture device. And any seasoned traveler will tell you that travel can be almost as unpleasant, pushing the limits of the body as much as the mind.
Despite this, I am frequently met with winks, nods, and references to enjoying wine when colleagues learn that I lead short-term study abroad programs to Europe, particularly to Spain and Italy. The subtext of such encounters is not that drinking a nice glass of wine with dinner is much needed after a long, hard day of work. Rather, the subtext is that the experience of leading study abroad programs is leisurely, breezy, and perhaps self-indulgent. In other words, the practice of leading study abroad programs is one motivated by leisurely self-interest, enjoying the “good life,” or getting out of meetings and out of office.
What is most troubling about sentiments like these is that they come from colleagues within the academe and that they are uttered ad nauseum. It is not uncommon to hear claims that faculty lead international programs to get “free holidays” or “vacations,” ones in which time is spent being served wine in European cafes instead of actually serving students.
Leading a study abroad program is not a vacation
The word “vacation” entered the English lexicon around the same time as “travel,” and was defined as an idle time away from work. In Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, the Wife of Bath’s fifth husband, Janykn, would read from a “book of wicked wives” each night when he had “leisure and vacation / from other worldly occupation.” In other words, a vacation is defined when one does not work.
Studying abroad is travel in the proper sense of the term and, as such, it is by its very definition the exact opposite of vacation. And, to be sure, leading academically rigorous study abroad programs commonly involves more work than teaching traditional courses.
A program leader’s actual working hours, and the nature of their supervision over students, increases while on study abroad programs. For instance, the moment a student leaves a traditional classroom, their professor’s responsibility for their learning, safety, and wellbeing generally ends. Abroad, however, their responsibilities begin the moment students arrive at the airport to embark on their journey and continue until the student returns home. That is to say, professors are on duty around the clock while leading international programs.
Program leaders are often not remunerated for this extra work. My institution, for example, pays professors the same overload rate to teach study-abroad courses as they pay professors to teach overload courses without study-abroad components. When you consider the amount of work professors put into training, planning, designing, recruiting, being “on call” around the clock, attending pre-departure orientations and meetings, and in-situ teaching in a high-impact area like study abroad, you’ll understand the great bargain institutions receive. This is to say nothing about the normal and common duties expected of the professor, like course prep and grading.
With this in mind, one can reasonably argue that it requires far less work, effort, and planning to teach a traditional face-to-face course than it does to teach a course with an international travel component. If leading study abroad programs is a holiday, how would we characterize face-to-face teaching?
Study abroad programs are not “free trips”
While the program leaders’ travel expenses are absorbed by student fees, getting a “free trip” shouldn’t be factored as “compensation” for leading a study abroad program. Paying someone’s travel costs to work in another city, as a necessary component of the work itself, isn’t “compensation.” It is at best a work-related expense. Funding the necessary instruments of work to the worker, for the sole purpose of work, is not to be construed as a benefit. Equating study abroad travel expenses with benefits is analogous to doing the same with safety equipment for high-risk occupations.
The point of this article is not to complain about compensation. Of course I would like to get paid more, but I will continue to lead study abroad programs under the current conditions as I understand the value and impact it has on students. My point, rather, is to argue that leading study-abroad programs is not as idyllic or leisurely as some in the academe may believe; the allure and office-escaping fantasy of travel is siren-like, rendering those without any study abroad experience senseless to the real work, difficulties, and risks involved.
Studying abroad is neither a vacation for students
Studying abroad is neither a holiday for students. Students are held just as responsible for their work and their behavior in a regular course as they are in a study abroad program. The difference is that during study abroad programs, students must “attend class” for longer periods of time and be on their best behavior until they return home. And professors often expect more from them. That is to say, studying abroad can be more demanding of students than traditional courses.
Rigorous short-term study abroad programs are essentially courses with international components, ones in which the “real world” becomes a significant lieu of learning. The world, the cliché goes, quite literally becomes the classroom. Even though study abroad students learn in a non-traditional setting, international program itineraries are built with course learning outcomes in mind. This means that faculty members must ensure that the course and the international components are at least as academically rigorous as their in-class counterparts. And they are often more so when one takes into consideration the fact that students encounter and engage with their subjects of study more directly than they do in the classroom.
Students are also exposed to the general hazards of travel in international programs, navigating the difficult waters of young adulthood in physically and mentally stressful environments and being asked by their professors to have their brains “turned on” for academic engagement for longer periods of time. They are simultaneously challenged to explore new worlds, encounter diverse ideas and personalities, and confront themselves as outsiders.
If short term study abroad programs are done well-that is, if they are clearly aligned with course learning outcomes, are rigorous, and count for college credit-, the institutions administering the programs are not absolved of its own hard work training faculty and staff, assessing and assuming the risks of the programs, and ensuring student preparedness.
To be sure, there are some professors who engage in unscrupulous activities while leading students abroad. I’m sure you’ve heard the stories. But those individuals belong to a minority of study abroad professionals who take this privilege and responsibility seriously, who work long and hard at ensuring student learning and growth, and who offer up their free time to create exemplary programs without any guarantee they will even attract enough students to run.
It is therefore time that our colleagues in the academe and the broader world refrain from belittling and undermining the hard work program leaders perform to help students success.
To be sure, the allure of travel can be just as intoxicating as the wine one jokes about drinking abroad. But what the “enjoy the Chianti” crowd fails to realize is that studying abroad is difficult, often physically and mentally strenuous, high-impact practice for the faculty member program leader and student alike and, when done right, also for the institution