North Central College awarded grant to help expand, diversify study abroad program

When Rachel Birkley was an undergraduate at North Central College, she was one of only a few students in her education program to study abroad.

Spending a semester in Spain was life-changing for the 2018 graduate, who now works as an education-abroad coordinator for the Naperville college's Center for Global Education. So upon learning of a federal grant that could help North Central lay the groundwork for a more robust and sustainable program, she and her colleagues jumped at the opportunity to apply.

"Truly, studying abroad is just transformational in how it changes the way you look at ... culture and people and ideas," Birkley said. "I see the value in it, and this is a way of paying it forward."

Selected from a pool of 132 applicants, North Central was one of 26 institutions nationwide to receive an Increase and Diversify Education Abroad for U.S. Students grant to "create, expand and/or diversify American student mobility overseas," according to the college's announcement this week.

The $35,000 award will help North Central integrate semesterlong education abroad opportunities into the curriculum for engineering and education students - two of the most underrepresented majors within study abroad, said Kimberly Larsson, assistant dean and executive director of the Center for Global Education.

In addition to increasing accessibility and awareness across various demographics, she said, the initiative will serve as a model that can eventually be expanded to other academic programs.

"This is truly just the first step," Birkley said. "We're planting that seed, and we'll see where it goes from there."

In the past, about 10% of North Central's student population participated in a short- or long-term study abroad program each year, Larsson said. But after a recent calendar shift from trimesters to semesters, she said, participation declined as students found it more difficult to incorporate a study abroad experience into their new schedules.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year, Larsson said, "we felt like we had a double whammy. All this momentum we had been gaining in education abroad all of the sudden came crashing down."

Those circumstances forced the Center for Global Education to take a closer look at its study abroad portfolio, recognize gaps in its student makeup and realign its goals, she said.

During the grant timeline, which begins Tuesday and extends through August 2022, North Central faculty members are expected to travel to two partnering institutions - the University of Limerick in Ireland for engineering and The American College of Greece in Athens for education - to tour facilities and learn about their programs, Larsson said. Once they're back on campus, they'll be able to better promote and inform students about the opportunities available overseas.

Birkley said study abroad program leaders also are partnering with groups that work with students of color, first-generation students and those eligible for Pell Grants.

Intentionally incorporating a semester abroad into North Central's academic programs sets students apart as they move into the workforce or apply for graduate programs, Larsson said. Studying overseas increases cultural awareness and sensitivity, encourages independence, teaches compassion and prepares students for life post-graduation.

"The list goes on about how incredibly important it is for students, no matter what they're going to do, to have that experience abroad," Larsson said.

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