Georgia State students hold up bones in Tanzania's Olduvai Gorge, where some of the oldest pre-human remains have been found.

When Jessica Tillman spent a sweltering semester teaching in Belize, she didn’t face culture shock.

She found it easy to identify with local people, even spending a few days in the jungles near Guatemala with Mayan Indians who had rarely seen Caucasian foreigners.

The 31-year-old Georgian wasn’t fazed by thatched-roof huts or lack of running water. The hardest part of the whole semester, “hands down,” was the lack of air conditioning, Ms. Tillman told GlobalAtlanta.

But the temporary sacrifice turned out to be a good investment considering what the Kennesaw State University alumna got in return.

Teaching children speaking English, Spanish and Belizean Creole helped Ms. Tillman hone her career goals. She still wants to be an educator but is now looking to help students who need special support because of language barriers or other learning problems.

“Not to be cliche, but It was one of those life-changing things when you figure this is what I want to do,” said Ms. Tillman, who graduated in May with a degree in early childhood education but is back at Kennesaw State pursuing a master’s.

Most students returning from abroad say it has been a defining experience in their lives, but in 2008-09, for the first time in the nearly a decade, fewer Georgia students took the opportunity to study overseas. According to the University System of Georgia, the number of students going abroad dropped by 7.6 percent to 5,612 during the school year ending spring 2009, the latest year for which numbers are available.

Education leaders blame the sluggish economy, which has squeezed the pocketbooks of students and the state over the past three years.

“I think that more students, rather than taking May or June or July to go abroad to study, are finding that they have to find part-time jobs to work through the summer,” said John Parkerson, director of international programs at Clayton State University. “Just the costs, period, are more and more difficult for them to bear.”

On top of that, state funds for study abroad have dried up. At the end of the 2007-08 school year, the Board of Regents phased out a program called STARS – Students Abroad with Regents’ Support – which in its final year awarded $185,000 to students who worked part time to develop global programs at their schools.

In another cost-cutting move in December 2008, the board abolished the system’s Office of International Education, rolling its operations into another department and laying off four employees.

The funds won’t be coming back in the foreseeable future, said Linda Noble, associate vice chancellor for faculty affairs, whose responsibilities include international education.

“That would be something that would be on the table should the budget situation reverse. We don’t anticipate the budget situation improving because next year we will be losing some federal stimulus dollars,” she told GlobalAtlanta.

As for the office, it’s unlikely to be reopened, as most matters concerning study abroad are handled by a council of international education leaders from the 35 public universities in the system, Ms. Noble said.

Globalization, meanwhile, isn’t slowing down, so Georgia universities and their students are having to be creative to fund programs that provide the global awareness employers are increasingly demanding from college graduates.

Usually, students pay regular tuition while studying abroad, but living and travel expenses can vary depending on the destination and duration of the trip. Ms. Tillman said her Belize trip wouldn’t have been possible without a $2,000 scholarship funded by Kennesaw State’s global learning fee.

Kennesaw began collecting the $14 fee from each student in 2008. Last year it generated more than $700,000, almost all of which went to help students fund their trips. Most got about $500, but some received $2,000-$3,000 depending on the length and cost of their program.

The fee, which was approved by the student body, is one of many ways Kennesaw fosters an international ethos around campus. It also hosts a university-wide country study each year and offers a global-engagement certificate that students can tack on to their diplomas.

The university sees global education as “critically important” for students’ ability to be competitive in the job market, said Daniel Paracka, Kennesaw’s director of education abroad.

It’s also important for future of the world, he said. 

“We don’t need this global perspective only to out-compete but also to work together to solve the challenges that no country can solve alone, he said.

Kennesaw’s study-abroad participation rose by 5.6 percent in 2008-09, a year when many other schools’ numbers declined, Dr, Paracka said.

With 618 of its students going abroad, Kennesaw cracked the top 10 among master’s institutions in the U.S., according to the Institute for International Education‘s 2010 Open Doors Report released in November. Dr. Paracka said the actual number of students was 748 including those from other schools participating in Kennesaw programs.

Two other Georgia schools have enacted international education fees to help fund overseas programs: Georgia Institute of Technology and Georgia State University, both of which saw study-abroad participation remain basically flat in 2008-09 after consecutive years of positive growth.

For Georgia State, it has sometimes been tough to persuade students that the experience of studying abroad is worth the cost.

“The biggest challenge always is funding for our students. Our students really rely on scholarship funding in order to have these experiences,” said Farrah Bernardino, study abroad director at Georgia State.

The international education fee, which started at $5 in 2003 and was raised to $13 in 2009, has been “instrumental in helping our students by showing them that there is funding there,” Ms. Bernardino said. Some 573 Georgia State Students went abroad in 2009-10.

Georgia State has also emulated the STARS program with its own work-for-scholarship program called ATLAS. Ms. Bernardino’s office is also conducting more “How to Afford Study Abroad” workshops around campus, she said.

Dominica Lim, who is set to graduate from Georgia State with a political science degree in May, started helping with the seminars after her she spent a summer in Grenada, Spain.

“It did change my life and I realize I want students to see that and have the opportunity to do the same things. I don’t want them to feel like it’s not possible or that there aren’t ways to do it,” she said.

For her own trip, Ms. Lim received $650 from Georgia State, which she put toward the $1,000 airfare. The rest of the program cost about $3,000, which she raised by working, borrowing and asking for donations instead of Christmas and birthday presents.

It was money well spent for the recent graduate, who hopes to master the Spanish language and eventually work for the U.S. State Department overseas.

“Studying abroad in general is the best decision you’ll ever make,” she said.

Ms. Lim said students often worry about paying for their programs, but she stressed that they can raise money in a variety of creative ways. She has seen students rent out their rooms and cars, throw themed parties, borrow airline miles and send email letters to friends pleading for support. One student asked her boss at Chick-fil-A for help, while another volunteered to write travel journals and take pictures in exchange for funding.

Hundreds of scholarships also go unclaimed every year, Ms. Lim said. While working in Georgia State’s study abroad office, she saw a student get a scholarship simply for having red hair.

Looking Forward

With recovery from the recession and the growing momentum of global education, leaders expect numbers from the 2009-10 school year to show a rebound in participation.

Dr. Paracka said Kennesaw State has compiled its statistics, which show a nearly 16 percent jump from the previous year to 866 students.

But it’s not just the volume that is encouraging international educators; it’s the diversity of programs and destinations students are selecting.

While most U.S. students still pick Western European countries like the U.K., Italy, Spain and France – the top four destinations respectively – there are subtle shifts that suggest the growing importance of emerging economies and how globalization providing a deeper reach into previously untapped countries.

As a destination for U.S. students, Europe declined by 3.9 percent, while Africa was up 15.5 percent. China continued its steady rise, climbing 3.9 percent to remain in the top five.

For Georgia colleges, no corner of the world is off limits.

Clayton State will launch new programs to South Africa and Australia this year. Georgia State has a Tanzania program, among other programs in China and elsewhere. Kennesaw State is actively seeking opportunities in developing countries, Dr. Paracka said.

“We try to get students to go to the lesser-known places, places that they’re less familiar with, places that their less likely to go on their own, he said.

Columbus State University has programs to more than 25 countries, including Japan and South Korea, where nearly 30 percent more American students spent time in 2008-09 than in the previous year.

Columbus State has no programs in China, but its offerings in other countries are expanding. A chemistry professor will launch a program next year where students will travel to Ethiopia to study water issues, said Neal McCrillis, director of the university’s Center for International Education.

The key to new programs is faculty, who use their overseas connections and expertise to create intriguing itineraries that bring their disciplines to life in new ways, said Dr. McCrillis, an associate professor of history who has visited more than 10 countries for his work in history and global education.

“We don’t just create things because we think they’re good,” he said. Programs must be sustainable and make sense with existing coursework.

To sustain this momentum in the new year, universities should continue to innovate in fund-raising methods and find new ways to market programs to students in subjects where the relevance of overseas study isn’t as readily visible, Dr. McCrillis said.

“(Students) tend to see study abroad as something only a foreign language major would do,” he said. “That’s an old-fashioned way of looking at things; everybody who works needs to learn how to deal with people of other backgrounds.”


Facts on Study Abroad in Georgia:

-Top 5 sending public universities by students in 2008-09:

1. University of Georgia, 1,961

2. Georgia Institute of Technology, 1,021

3. Georgia State University, 637

4. Kennesaw State University, 491

5. Valdosta State University, 251

-Including private institutions like Emory University and Savannah College of Art & Design, Georgia’s study-abroad total was 7,774 during the 2009-10 school year, only three fewer students than the previous year.

Georgia Southern University posted a decline of 46.5 percent, the most drastic drop among colleges with at least 100 study-abroad participants.


-University System of Georgia. Editor’s note: Students from any school in the university system can receive credit from studying abroad through another school’s programs. The data on the top five sending universities doesn’t include such transient students, so the numbers don’t reflect the full number of students taking part in each school’s programs. Also, some education leaders have reported discrepancies in their own numbers and the data above.

-Open Doors Report 2010, Institute for International Education

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...