Reduced-cost study abroad program provides international experiences for low-income, first-generation students

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Monday, October 3rd, 2016

This past year for Purdue sophomore Daniel Cervantes could be described as the year of “firsts.” He took his first plane ride, first swim in the ocean, and first look at a city skyline that wasn’t Chicago, where he grew up in low socioeconomic conditions. And Cervantes—also the first member of his family to attend college—now knows firsthand how transformative study abroad can be.

“This was my first time going anywhere, and one of the main goals for our trip was to be cognitively flexible throughout the experience,” said Cervantes, one of 24 students who traveled this summer to Spain and Morocco as part of the annual Horizons study abroad program, through International Studies Abroad (ISA) . “I think everyone was surprised when I ordered sheep brain for our first dinner in Morocco, but I was ready to try new things.”

Since 2012, more than 100 undergraduates have participated in study abroad via Horizons, Purdue’s federally funded TRIO program that supports first-generation and low-income students. This year, students in Purdue Promise, which provides financial assistance and other support for eligible 21st Century Scholars, were also able to participate. In the summer of 2017, Purdue Promise will pilot its own version of the program, essentially doubling the number of Purdue students who are eligible for reduced-cost study abroad.

Cervantes, who participates in both Horizons and Purdue Promise, says his tuition is paid by scholarships, but paying for study abroad was an obstacle that nearly cost him the experience.

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Daniel Cervantes

Photo Credit:Josh Milligan

“The fact that there was financial help made this particular trip too good of an opportunity to waive on,” says Cervantes, who studies biomedical engineering. “Still, had I known how much the trip would change me—how much I would benefit personally and professionally—then I wouldn’t have let anything, not even the cost, stop me. It’s one of the most worthwhile things I’ve done in my life.”

Thanks to support from the Purdue Moves international experiences initiative and Purdue’s Office of Programs for Study Abroad, the trip provides an all-inclusive experience to students in Horizons and Purdue Promise—two of nine programs in the Student Success Programs department. Students in these two programs pay, on average, only 35 percent of the cost of a traditional short-term study abroad program.

Purdue Moves is a range of initiatives designed to broaden Purdue’s global impact and enhance educational opportunities for its students. The aspirational goal is for one-third of all undergraduate students to participate in an international study, internship or research credit-bearing experience before graduation. Without a substantial subsidy, however, the majority of students supported by Horizons and Purdue Promise, many of whom are underrepresented minority students, would not have the means to take part in a global educational program.

The Horizons staff member who encouraged Cervantes to go on the trip is Josh Milligan, a career counselor who has attended the organization’s study abroad for the past three years. Milligan says many of the students he counsels don’t even consider going on study abroad trips due to the cost alone, but especially STEM students who have rigid course schedules. However, in addition to the reduced cost, one of the most appealing aspects of the Horizons trip is that it takes place in May and lasts only three weeks.

“Most internships don’t start until June, so it’s very easy and possible for our students to participate,” Milligan says. “Even when internships start sooner, most companies offer flexible start dates because they see value in their hires having global experiences.”

Despite the relatively short timeframe, a lot of activities are squeezed into those three weeks. This summer, students learned to prepare cultural dishes, conducted service learning at an orphanage and disability center, played sports with locals, camped in the Sahara desert, took Arabic classes and much more.

One of the things Milligan finds most gratifying about the trip is that students often return seeking additional international opportunities, whether through lengthier study abroad trips or their future careers. Students also return with improved cultural competencies, Milligan says. After being welcomed by Moroccan locals, for instance, many Purdue students expressed a desire to reach out to members of Purdue’s international community upon their return, thereby paying forward the hospitality they received throughout their stay abroad.

The experience for students is intended to be holistic in nature and is guided by self-reflective coursework throughout the trip, says Rosa Villarreal, director of Horizons. Students contribute to a class blog, write a series of one-page reflections, participate in daily group debriefings and write a final paper, activities that encourage them to internalize their cultural experiences and apply them to their lives when they return home.

“Many students end the trip with this greater notion of global leadership and an investment in a curriculum that they thought wasn’t too relevant going in,” Villarreal says. “According to their post-evaluation surveys, this is the biggest surprise for them—that what they thought was going to be just another class has been a truly transformative and impactful experience.”

Cervantes is still reflecting on the many ways his perspectives were changed by the trip. Before they left for Spain and Morocco, for example, all students took the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) assessment, a 50-item questionnaire that evaluates a person’s intercultural competence. The assessment measures a person’s ability to shift cultural perspective and appropriately adapt behavior to cultural differences and commonalities.

After taking the initial assessment, Cervantes discovered that he tended to minimize his own Mexican heritage and glorify other cultures. During the trip, he felt frustrated at times due to his inability to speak Spanish with his host mother in Spain. Although his father emigrated from Mexico, Cervantes never learned his dad’s native language. But something shifted for Cervantes while he was abroad; he felt a profound desire to reconnect with his cultural roots and learn the language so many Spanish-speakers assumed he already knew.

“Part of the trip was becoming more aware of other cultures and getting in tune with my own,” Cervantes says. “Now that I’m back in the U.S., I’m going to participate in free Spanish lessons offered by the Purdue Latino Cultural Center, and I’m thinking about joining Purdue 360 (a group that organizes diversity and culture activities to raise awareness about the different cultures represented on campus). I don’t know when I will have the opportunity to study abroad again, but I plan to relive my experiences by telling people about my journey. The people I met have made an everlasting impact on me, and I can’t wait to see them again one day.”

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Writer: Andrea Thomas, Communications Director for Student Success Programs, 765-496-3754, thomas78@purdue.edu


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