Thinking Cohesively About Off-Campus Experiences

PLU-Neal-SobaniaWhat’s the difference between study abroad and domestic study away experiences? When we examine the learning objectives, Pacific Lutheran University’s Neal Sobania is not sure there is a difference.

Sobania is a long-standing advocate of study away programs. He credits his own experience – studying abroad in Eastern Europe, working with the Peace Corps in Ethiopia, and completing his Ph.D. in London – as impetus for his focus. He worked for 24 years at his undergraduate alma mater, Hope College, as a history professor and director of international programs before coming to PLU to serve as executive director of its Wang Center for Global Education. In 2009 he was recognized for leading the effort that earned PLU a Senator Paul Simon Award for Campus Internationalization. Three years prior he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Institute for International Education of Students.

PLU_PuttingTheLocalCoverAlthough the term ‘international’ factors heavily into Sobania’s resume, as the editor of Putting the Local in Global Education: Models for Transformative Learning through Domestic Off-Campus Programs (Stylus Publishing; May 8, 2015), he advocates for any off-campus study experience. The educational value lies in putting the student in another environment so that they begin to understand that the culture in which they’ve been raised is not everyone’s culture, explained Sobania. That can be accomplished without leaving the United States.

While Sobania acknowledges that students majoring in a foreign language can make the case for a particular location, he said that there are plenty of diverse populations in the United States that speak different languages. Many institutions, he said, are working with minority and/or refugee communities in their neighborhoods but yet they don’t think of themselves as international. He pointed to recent studies of social media that show homogeneity of users’ networks among different groups, whether white, black or Hispanic.

“We don’t even know who our neighbors are. When we make the excuse that you have to do an overseas program because it’s in the best interests of the U.S., one can make the same argument for domestic programs,” said Sobania.

Study abroad and domestic off-campus study programs are complementary, and they shouldn’t be seen in competition with each other, asserts Sobania. It’s about creating opportunities. Domestic programs can be especially attractive to students who don’t have the resources to study abroad or non-traditional students who can’t afford to be away for very long periods of time. It can also be attractive to students who simply aren’t thinking about traveling to faraway places.

Sobania noted that when he came to PLU they were already using the term ‘study away,’ rather than just ‘study abroad,’ and all off-campus study programs – whether abroad or in the U.S. – were administered from the same office. That’s often not the case at many campuses. Instead you might find international programs in one office, and then domestic programs might be run by various academic departments rather than from a centralized location. Sobania asserts that perhaps it’s time to not only combine abroad and domestic study away programs, but to take into account all off-campus learning, including internships, community-based education and research and even online courses.

“I think global education is just the way that we’re describing this now. I think in the very near future global education is just going to be what we call education. We want all students to have a significant, immersive off-campus experience,” said Sobania.

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