Few opportunities present students a better chance to diversify their skills and experiences than the ability to study in a foreign country.
The Learning Abroad program helms the University of Utah's credit-bearing programs outside of the United States, and presents students with the option to study in a foreign country for a period as short as one week to as long as a year.
The process for students to get involved with Learning Abroad is relatively easy. First students must attend a Learning Abroad 101 session which provides the students with information regarding programs, the application process and scholarships.
The University of Utah's Learning Abroad programs offers more than 500 programs in more than 50 countries. In the 2013-2014 school year alone the Learning Abroad office had nearly 700 students go abroad from 24 different majors from 14 colleges attending 122 different programs. There were 65 faculty members involved in the trips that saw students visiting 39 countries.
"We have more than 500 programs available, so it can be a little bit overwhelming for a student to choose," Said Beth Laux, Director of the Learning Abroad Program for the University of Utah. "Learning Abroad 101 helps students to understand their options and how to filter those programs so that they can select the one that will be best for them."
The application process is handled online, allowing students to simply fill out the application on the Internet, and begin the process of preparing to leave.
"It's a very individualized process because there are really three main things to look at in finding what program is best for the student,"Laux said. "You have to look at academic needs, personal interests, and the student's personal goals."
Tying these three core principles together is what Laux said helps to narrow down the field of options to help find the Learning Abroad program that will best meet the needs of each student that applies.
"We may have a biology major who needs to take certain courses, has an interest in biology in Latin America, but really wants to study in a place where they can learn a foreign language," Laux said. "So you have to find a way to balance all of those elements and find a program that meets the needs of the student. Each student is different, so we work with them to find out which of those things is a priority for them and see what they want to get out of the experience, so that we can find the right program that will help them achieve those goals."
Laux's goals include helping students to understand that Learning Abroad presents a unique opportunity to accomplish their goals, while diversifying their experiences.
"From an academic standpoint, Learning Abroad gives students an entirely different perspective on what they've learned in the classroom," Laux said. "From a professional level, what they gain is a little bit of the same. Learning Abroad forces you to think about the practice of your field in a completely different element. Students not only learn how to practice their specialty, but how things differ in the United State. It enables them to be more effective, not just abroad, but at home."
While many students consider Learning Abroad a good supplement to their regular studies on campus, Laux said, many students might just be missing the point. Rather than treating Learning Abroad as something they can add to their resumes along with their traditional academic work, they should see it as a prime opportunity to pursue what they're already trying to accomplish.
Laux points out "We have programs that include community engagement, research programs, career development, and language immersion programs. These are all very concrete goals that many students have for what they want to do after they graduate. So these programs are unique ways to reach their existing goals that will also stand out for students, future employers, and graduate schools."
Helping students navigate the large number of options to customize their Learning Abroad experience comes with challenges. Many of the issues that Laux sees are due to inadequate timing.
"One of the challenges with so many choices is that students often wait too long to start. The earlier they start, the more options they will have," Laux said. "If a student only has three semesters of school left, there will only be so many programs they can choose from, but if they start visiting us from the beginning of their freshman year, they may have as many as 120 options to choose from."
Another issue that Laux often sees is that many students will miss opportunities for scholarships, because they start looking too late and miss the deadlines for a large number of scholarships for their Learning Abroad experience. With more than $200,000 in scholarships offered to Learning Abroad students, the opportunities for students seeking aid are vast.
"There are a lot of national scholarships that our students do very well on, so it really becomes an issue of planning. They need to plan ahead to make the most of those opportunities," Laux said.
For Laux, one of the most rewarding aspects of her work through Learning Abroad is seeing the impact that the program has on numerous levels.
"These students come back so fired up and so ready to continue to engage with the communities that they worked with during their time abroad, that we see almost a ripple effect into different areas on our campus and local community," Laux said.
International programs such as the Learning Abroad are invaluable to the future of the University of Utah as a globally engaged institution.
"It's impossible in this day and age to live in a bubble, and with our students wired into the Internet, they are already working with people across borders all the time," Laux said. "So I think we have an obligation as a university to prepare students to live in that world. In order to do that we have to internationalize curriculum and opportunities for students to engage directly with people from other cultures and understand how those cultures impact the way we interact with one another."