Tips for Directing A Study Abroad Program

Musicologist, Dr. Ginny Lamothe of Belmont University shares her insights for directing a study abroad program – offering practical advice for safety and sanity. Get the details right, and you set the stage for inspiration and wonder.

In May of 2015 I directed my first Study Abroad program to Rome, Italy.  It was not just a learning experience for my students, but also for me.  From my first-hand experience of watching my students experience another culture and walk through churches and museums where the music they studied actually took place, I can say that studying abroad is an important opportunity that I believe should be available to every student.

But putting together an international study program is very hard, and many professors might feel that they would like to direct a program, but are unsure how.

shutterstock_95079640There is also a good deal of anxiety that comes up when you are not teaching in a traditional classroom, let alone, teaching in a foreign country.  Although I had lived in Rome during my last years of graduate school thanks to a Fulbright award and a generous scholarship from the Lemmermann foundation, I realized I still had a lot to learn when it came to leading and teaching a group of young people, and not just worrying about myself.  I would like to outline some of the most important things I learned about directing a Study Abroad program that can be applied to any discipline.

First and foremost, identify what resources and opportunities you have available to you.  I am so very fortunate to work at Belmont University because Belmont has invested greatly in Study Abroad programs.  I had several directors of the Office of Study Abroad to talk to and bounce ideas off of while I worked.  They were also my lifeline once we were off the runway and on our way to Fiumicino Airport.  They helped me make connections with international agencies that help coordinate programs in the foreign country.  Because of these connections, I was able to speak to directors and draw up contracts for everything from transportation to housing to tour guides and busses before our trip was even open for student enrollment.  I also learned that a program works best at a liberal arts college like Belmont when you can offer courses in more than one subject.  All of our students have to take two semesters of writing.  I was fortunate to team up with a professor in the Department of English who could offer these courses as well as some elective opportunities in rhetoric and writing.

Here are some things that I did not know, and have now learned from experience.  Most of these focus on the student’s health and safety – something most professors don’t think about quite as much while teaching in their regular classrooms.  I will admit, I had the hardest time dealing with worry for my students, like an anxious mother hen.  I hope that some of these tips will come in handy for other professors as they embark on new or existing Study Abroad programs.

First. Have a meal together with all of the students and the faculty.  We travelled as a group of sixteen students and two faculty.  Even the smallest trattorias in Rome were happy to have us, even when we were spilling out into the streets and courtyards!  This meal helped us from the first day to set the tone that we work as a group and will display courtesy and trust with one another.

shutterstock_349365008I had heard from some of my colleagues that they were beleaguered on their trips with problems caused by student behavior and cliques that formed among the students.  I can’t say I didn’t have any student problems, but I do owe a good deal of the fun we had on this trip to the fact that we set the tone from the beginning.  We designated an “I’m Lost” plan for students who were given maps and cell phones as part of their program.  Students knew that there would be times we would ask them to line up or “count off” for safety purposes to make sure no one was accidentally left behind.  We also re-visited the challenges of traveling in Italy that we had discussed while still at orientation.  Students were prepared and reminded of issues of weather, steep hills, cobblestone streets, heights, and what to do if they were injured or ill.

Second. I learned not to pack too much in for each day of the program.  I also learned it is necessary to leave some “free days” where students could choose their own “adventure,” or get caught up on school work or sleep.  A list of places to visit that you might not have time for, or might not interest every student in the program, comes in handy for students who want to do some exploring.  Free days also save everyone’s sanity.  Too many busy days of more than one event per day can really wear you and your students down when you are battling unreliable transportation, record heat, and jet lag.  Crankiness can also be your friend if you use it as a guide.  We quickly learned to listen to each student’s own form of “cranky” and use it as a way to measure when it was time to call it a day.  Sometimes students would become cranky or sullen in the case of injury, as I learned from one student who accidentally scratched his cornea and wound up with an eye infection.  Other times, students simply just needed time and space to be alone or get some rest.shutterstock_241635388

This brings me to the next hard lesson I learned. rest is very important for professors too!  I have learned that I should have a written statement about calls or visits to my apartment in the middle of the night.  For my May 2016 trip, it will probably say something like “Unless you are bleeding and need to go to the hospital, don’t wake me up.”  Serious bodily injury or illness was my version of an “emergency” and I made the mistake of thinking it was also the same for my students.  Unfortunately, my students called me in the middle of the night almost every night.  They always claimed it was an “emergency,” but their “emergencies” included trying to get me to talk to a waiter to tell him to split the restaurant bill seven ways, homesickness that causes them to find a McDonalds but yet not their way back to their dorm, roommates upset because other roommates were jumping on the beds, students calling me because their bed broke and “they don’t know how it happened,” pickpockets stealing everything from underwear (don’t ask) to i Phones, not enough internet speed for real-time gaming, and “lack of taxis”.  As much as I wanted to help my students, all of these “emergencies” can and should wait until the morning.  Professors need their sleep so that they can direct a safe and fun program for all of their students.

Third. The third lesson I learned happened just before our trip orientation.  Certain medications are illegal in foreign countries.  Not even every country in the EU agrees to the same drug policies, so one cannot assume that if a medication is available in Germany that it is even legal in Italy.  Certain medications commonly used in the United States for young people with ADD, ADHD, and seizure disorders are not only unavailable in Italy, but they are highly illegal and considered a narcotic.  Carrying such medications without proper documentation could result in an arrest and possibly the equivalent of a felony charge.  Find out which medications your students are taking.  Assure the students you only need to know this information for reasons concerning their safety.  If a student is taking a medication that is not allowed in the foreign country you are travelling to, make sure they are aware of the problem.  Allow time for documentation or for the student to switch to a different medication.

As a program director, it is helpful to remember that life at home does not stop while you are abroad.  Students will get calls from friends and family back home about illnesses, deaths, unexpected bills, and other personal matters.  You are there for them as so much more than a teacher, not just for their life while abroad, but also their life back home.  You may find yourself having very open heart-to-heart talks with students experiencing grief or worry that you might not normally encounter in a regular classroom at the University.  I believe that it is important to be available to the students in these moments should they choose to come to you because they may not be able to reach someone back home by phone or internet, and they most certainly cannot see them at that moment in person.  I learned this first hand while in the middle of the trip when both of my grandparents were hospitalized and my grandmother was in serious condition.  Because I was halfway across the world, I felt helpless in my worry.  I am fortunate that today they are both healthy once again, but I will remember that time of anxiety and grief when comforting a student experiencing those same feelings of helplessness in the situation while they are abroad.

Most importantly, I believe it is important to be present.  Listen to the wonder in the students’ voices as they experience the Colosseum or St. Peter’s Basilica for the first time. Take in the scenic views and experience them again and again as you see your students post them on social media.  Know that they will only be young once while they have this experience, and cherish it even if they do not know how precious it is.  You can enjoy so many moments with them, even when you are sitting in the waiting room of the eye hospital’s night-time ER.

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Virginia Lamothe
This post is by Virginia Christy Lamothe, a musicologist and Lecturer at Belmont University in Nashville, TN. She teaches courses in the history of classical and popular music. Her research focuses include teaching practices of higher education, music of the seventeenth century, and Tin Pan Alley and theater at the turn of the twentieth century.

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